Less than two weeks ago, Netta Barzilai became Israel’s top heroine for taking the first prize in Eurovision 2018.
Her loud, colorful persona, her statement-making lyrics, and her attention-grabbing sound effects captivated audiences worldwide, and filled many Israelis with tremendous national pride. Netta’s victory represents the triumph of the strong and brash woman who refuses to conform to male-dominated society’s imagery over the traditional woman, whom she perceives as submissive.
This week, in contrast, we read the story of Ruth. There is nothing brash, nothing rebellious, nothing anti-feminine or anti-masculine in Ruth’s personality, and yet she exudes an unmistakable aura of strength and heroism. In fact, Ruth reminds us that heroism does not need to be loud and eye-catching. Her strength is in the love and devotion that she quietly and selflessly gives to Naomi, while expecting nothing in return, certainly no public recognition.
Ruth reminds us that loud public appearances, proclamations, and accusations are not the greatest demonstrations of strength for either one of the sexes. Ruth has two clear goals: the first is supporting Naomi tangibly and emotionally, and the second is carrying on the name of Naomi’s family. Neither of those goals are about Ruth. In both cases she puts herself second. Ruth is ready to leave behind the warmth and love of her family and the comfort of her people in order to give warmth and love to her bereaved mother-in-law instead. She then is willing to subordinate her romantic potential to her decision to carry on the Elimelech family name. Ruth’s courage is in her ability to step into the unknown for the sake of the ones she loves and loved; she gives and she builds, but not for her own sake.
Ruth’s hard work and courage aim higher than self-interest. Moreover, Ruth allows herself to trust Boaz, placing her honor at risk, putting faith in him to join her in aiming higher than self-interest. Ruth is too busy striving to accomplish her goals to focus on how she is perceived by those around her, whether it be the Israelites in general, Boaz’s farmhands, or Boaz himself.
Ruth was fortunate; her kindness and faith were met with kindness and trustworthiness. She risked her modesty and was not betrayed. Not all women are so lucky as to be met with decency and respect in response to their trust. This is the unfortunate source of the MeToo movement and of the popularity of women like Netta. Netta, along with others, represents a liberation from vulnerability.
The truth, however, is that there is no way to close off all vulnerability without closing off the potential for great accomplishments. Twenty-first-century society teaches us to put ourselves first. By taking care of our physical and emotional needs first, we are told, we will be able to give and produce more. But, in reality, the self-centered approach becomes under-productive. Too many modern women are so focused on building themselves up that they are losing sight of true greatness.
In real life, there is a conflict between the fame of the stage (whether it be the actual stage or another career that offers public commendation) and the demands of family and community. We gain nothing from pretending that the two are anything other than contradictory. Our individual success comes at the cost of our national identity.
And for both women and men, it is our national identity — not our personal fame — that determines our place in eternity. For the Greeks and Romans, heroism meant establishing a name through famous individual accomplishments. Speaking to a society with this mindset, Socrates and later Hellenistic philosophy struggled with the question of why we ought to do the right thing when no one is looking. Judaism teaches us that we find our eternity in the memories of our loved ones and in the national memory that perpetuates the selfless deeds we do for our fellow Jews in a covenant with God — something we all share together. The most obvious purpose of the Book of Ruth, after all, is to teach us how the eternal House of David — king of Israel for all time — came about through the selfless actions of Ruth and Boaz. They are remembered. Orpah, Ruth’s sister-in-law, looked out for herself first, going back to her people and to obscurity. As for the man who shirked the responsibility to marry Ruth before Boaz, out of concern for his own interests, the book does not even see fit to mention his name. Because he was so focused on his own future before that of his fellow Jews, he missed his chance for eternity. He is literally called “anonymous.”
Without a doubt, we have the right and even the responsibility to demand that men treat us with respect, both in bed and in the workplace, but if that becomes the be-all and end-all, we will have taken a step back, not forward. Jewish tradition prizes the type of greatness that Ruth achieves. Her priorities are kindness to the forlorn Naomi and the provision of a future to her family within the Jewish people. And Ruth’s love for her family and people wins God’s heart, becoming the basis of the eternal House of David — which, throughout the Bible, God preserves out of love, even when it is undeserving.
So we are left with a choice. We can make our national pride contingent on Europe and its vision of a heroism of fame as the highest aspiration, or we can be part of Ruth’s great tradition of heroism that derives its eternity from its very selflessness.