The Holiday of Nonviolence: Shavuot

This amazing portrait of Naomi, Ruth and Orpah, painted by William Blake in 1795, captures perhaps the most dramatic women’s story in the entire Hebrew Bible. It is a story that is associated with the holiday of Shavuot because of the mention of the importance of the harvest for the story and for this ancient holiday. This is a book I urge everyone to read, and read about

This is a tale the tragedy of drought, loss, death and homelessness, in other words the most common tale of forced emigration. But the story is unique in its description of undying devotion and selflessness and the unforgettable bond between two women suffering, and the heroic determination of Ruth to rebuild their lives.

What strikes me as important about their behavior and their relationship is how completely bereft it is of anger and violence toward others. Naomi has plenty to be bitter about, having lost her husband, her sons, and apparently any rights in a patriarchal society to inherit anything from her husband. It is hard to know for sure, but it certainly seems that the cards are stacked against her not only due to her loss but also because she is a woman. There are other bitter women in the Bible such as Sarah, and her reaction is not as peaceful as Naomi’s. Naomi is very sad, but not violent or hateful. And Ruth’s reaction to the situation, and her own loss, is to seize on love and devotion. That is just the beginning of the story, and you can read more to see how it ends. But the most important lesson is that in many places in the Bible, such as Psalms, or Job, the pain of loss leads to bitterness and even recrimination. Here, though, in this story, celebrated on Shavuot, the holiday of Divine Revelation at Sinai, the reaction to suffering is love, resilience and determination to survive. Perhaps that is why Ruth is the ancestor of the Messianic Era, because she embodies the virtues that always give birth to a better future. 


© Marc Gopin