Perspective From Rock Bottom: Shavuot 2020

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Sometimes, in moments when the present or future appear to be bleak, we are prone to saying things we wish we hadn’t.

On the second day of Shavuot, observed this Shabbat, we traditionally read the book of Ruth, a tale of tragedy and redemption. Most of its first chapter deals with the tragedy, in which Naomi endures famine as well as the death of her husband and two sons. Returning home to the Promised Land, she appears to be thinking not of new beginnings, but rather her painful past:

“I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. How can you call me Naomi [“pleasant” in Hebrew], when the LORD has dealt harshly with me, when Shaddai has brought misfortune upon me!” – Ruth 1:21

The medieval commentator Rashi teaches that one explanation of the phrase “Shaddai has brought misfortune” is that “the Divine Attribute of Justice has humbled me.” If we read the text this way, perhaps we can consider that Naomi is not as despondent as she seems. Indeed, she must cope with recent misfortune. But humility implies an outward perspective, a realization that one’s struggles are only a small part of the challenges faced by society in general.

In other words, perhaps Naomi is saying that while she wishes her life were different, she understands that she is not the only one having a hard time, and that she can and must take at least some responsibility to improve her fortune. Judging from the rest of the Book of Ruth, Naomi does exactly that, encouraging her daughter-in-law Ruth to do the same.

As Shavuot begins, I hope we will approach the coming days with that same spirit. May we grapple with the challenges of isolation, sickness, and uncertainty with a realization that so many others are wrestling with the same struggles, and may that lead us to acts of compassion, kindness, and awareness.

Chag Sameach, Shabbat Shalom, and please continue to stay safe.