The story of Ruth has a simple beauty that never fades. It is about two women, an Israelite, Naomi, and her Moabite daughter- in-law Ruth, and the human bond between them. Naomi’s husband and sons have died. Both women are now childless widows. Naomi tells Ruth that they must part and rebuild their separate lives. Ruth refuses. She accompanies Naomi back to Israel and eventually marries another member of the family, Boaz. From that marriage, three generations later, David was born, Israel ’s greatest king.
The book of Ruth is about the simple gestures that transcend differences, the universal language of help to those in need. Childless widows were the most vulnerable, defenseless members of ancient societies. In addition, Ruth and Naomi were divided by ethnicity - Israelites and Moabites. Still Ruth was resolute.
Its message still stands. The holiday of Shavuot is when Jews celebrate the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. The fact that we read Ruth’s story at this time tells us that laws alone cannot make society. Society needs something more — the unforced, unlegislated kindness that makes us reach out to the lonely and vulnerable, even if we are lonely and vulnerable ourselves. Then and now, society needs the kindness of strangers.
I find it moving that the Bible dedicates a book to the story of David’s great-grandmother Ruth, as if to say that her life was no less significant than his. She was a stranger, an outsider, someone with nothing but her own force of character, her refusal to walk away from another person’s troubles. David was a military hero, a king. There is a form of greatness, suggests the Bible, that has nothing to do with power, fame or renown. It exists in simple deeds of kindness and friendship, generosity and grace. Rarely do they make the news. But they change lives, relieving some of the pain of the human situation.
America’s volunteers are our Ruths. Each is writing her own sequel to her story. Volunteering is rarely glamorous and never easy, especially for those with many other pressures on their time. But few things count more when it comes to looking back on a life than being able to say, I made a difference. Beneath the clamor of self-interest, a quieter voice within us whispers the deeper truth: the greatest gift is to be able to give.
Next week, I will relate another story of volunteering involving my synagogue, and the following week will tell the story of a patient in my practice. This will then be followed by a column with some gratifying medical news for those who give of themselves.
If you have a comment or question about this blog entry, email Dr. Roffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Joel Roffman has spoken to many church, synagogue and support groups. His book, Coping with Adversity: Judaism’s response to illness and other life struggles is enjoyable, uplifting and informative. It is meant for people of all faiths and can be viewed at www.copingwithadversity.com. It is available at Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Amazon.com.