The Ancient Greeks had a wonderful word, kairos, meaning a time that is right, a critical or opportune moment. In the context of archery, it denoted the moment when an arrow may be fired with sufficient force to penetrate a target, and in the context of weaving, the moment when the shuttle can be passed through the loom’s threads. In rhetoric, kairos is “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.” Christians adopted the concept of kairos in their messianic theology. But it is relevant to Jews too.
Three of the five biblical books known as the “megillahs,” the scrolls, contain a moment of kairos — a pivotal moment with tremendous ramifications. These do not simply descend from heaven, they rest upon an action. In fact, all three depend upon a woman’s choice. Two are made successfully, one is not.
Let’s begin with the negative example, from Song of Songs. Amid many descriptions of beauty, nature, and poetic words about lovers, nestles one particularly powerful scene. The female lover has been urgently seeking her beau, traversing the city, the markets, the broad streets. “I sought him, but I found him not,” she tells us plaintively.
But in chapter 5, he finally arrives. “I have come to my garden, my sister, my bride,” he calls tenderly. She sleeps, but with her heart awake and alert to his coming. He knocks at the door of her abode. “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.”
Instead of eagerly answering it, she succumbs to an astounding moment of apathy and laziness: “I have taken off my robe; how shall I put it on? I have bathed my feet; how shall I soil them?” The beloved puts his hand through the door hole. Thrilled, she arises, hands dripping with myrrh, to open to him… too late. He has gone.
That mere split second of torpor and sluggishness, of forgetting her passion, has cost her everything. No matter how quickly she then realizes her folly and jumps up to make amends, she cannot repair the breach; he has vanished. How could this happen? In line with Rabbi Eliyhau Dessler’s discussion of willpower in his Michtav Me’Eliyahu, I’d suggest that while her highest desire is indeed to meet her lover, it is her lower bodily inertia and laziness that dominate in the crucial moment. Her higher will is not powerful enough to prevail over the body’s indulgence in sleep.
Now we turn to the two positive points of choice.
In the scroll of Esther, Mordechai sends Queen Esther the terrifying instruction that she must go in to the King, although she has not been called – carrying a penalty of death. He famously urges her:
“For if you remain silent at this time, then shall relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but you and your father’s house shall be destroyed. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Esther hears him, and instructs him to gather all the Jews and fast three days for her: “I also and my girls will fast likewise; and so will I go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” This heroic choice leads to the salvation of the Jews of the Persian Empire.
Mordechai’s phrase, “such a time as this” is a clear indicator of the appearance of fleeting opportunity and opening, that must be driven through with force, if success is to be achieved in this particular set of circumstances. This is none other than a moment of kairos.
There is a powerful and compelling textual link between Esther and the Song of Songs. We later find Esther explaining to King Ahasuerus, in words traditionally read in the melody of Eichah (Lamentations), the fourth of the five megillahs: “For how can I endure to see the evil that shall come to my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my relatives?”
The Hebrew word here for “how” is eichacha. This is the very same word used by the female lover in the Shir Hashirim in “how shall I put on my robe?” This word appears nowhere else in the Tanach and undoubtedly signals that we should juxtapose and compare the two stories.
Esther’s eichacha, her realization of “I could not possibly (abandon my people)” tells us that she has heard and answered the knock of destiny on her door; and that, in doing so, she does a tikkun for and rejects that Song of Songs moment of sluggishness. Esther might easily also have remained in her comfort zone, in her comfortable role as passive compliant queen. But she exerts her willpower to overcome her terror and act. How? By transcending her bodily considerations — her basic emotions and survival instinct — and introducing a spiritual realization strong enough to dominate: that this is what she was created for, to save her people. Sadly, the Song of Songs’ lover says eichacha in an entirely different tone, one of surrender “I could not possibly put on my robe now….” Lacking the fierce determination of Esther, she fails.
The second successful moment of kairos appears in the Book of Ruth, in the fateful conversation in which Naomi urges her Moabite daughters-in-law to return to Moab. Orpah kisses her mother-in-law, while Ruth holds fast to her with her famous speech: “…Do not entreat me to leave you, or to keep from following you; for wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; 17. Where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if even death parts me from you.”
Let’s pop into the moment before this speech, and watch it in slow motion:
14. And they lifted up their voice, and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law; but Ruth held fast to her. 15. And she said, Behold, your sister-in-law is gone back to her people, and to her gods; go back you after your sister-in-law. (Ruth 1:14-15)
What if we were to view this moment as a “Sliding Doors” moment – a split into two of a narrative which until that moment had been one? Ruth and Orpah are till then entirely undifferentiated; so much so, that we do not even know who married Mahlon and who Kilyon. For all intents and purposes, they have been interchangeable. But now, they suddenly divide into two opposite narratives: Orpah leaves and goes back; Ruth stays and goes forward. It is a moment of spiritual mitosis, if you will.
What exactly happened during this moment?
Embedded in Orpah’s name is the word, oref, meaning back of the neck. The rabbis suggest that her name is her essence, for she turned her back on her mother-in-law. Yet we notice that the verse does not explicitly tell us that Orpah left. She kissed her mother-in-law, but there is no described action of leaving. Thus, once in a Bibliodrama workshop on the book of Ruth, someone who had read the verse carefully protested, as Orpah: “But I didn’t leave. She turned her back on me.”
This detail is significant. It highlights for us the precise quality of the contrasting actions of Ruth and Orpah.
Naomi is doing her best to fiercely push these women away. It is she who turns her back on both of them. Orpah, passive, allows events to unfold, losing Naomi in the process. But “Ruth held fast,” clinging with all her might, with steely determination making her declaration of eternal loyalty.
Naomi understands that she won’t be able to shake her, and their destinies become joined. And, as in the movie “Sliding Doors,” from that time, each woman goes further and further from the other. Orpah, says one of our most startling midrashim, went that night and slept with 100 men and a dog; she was later to become the ancestress of Goliath. In contrast, Ruth’s every step henceforth will bring her closer to becoming the wife of Boaz and the progenitor of King David and ultimately of the Messiah. To paint it visually, it is as if the women now step onto two conveyor belts that proceed to speed them in opposite directions.
If kairos is indeed “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved,” Ruth has that force, while Orpah lacks it. Perhaps, too, Naomi has set it up as a deliberate test: she knows that to make it in the hard life awaiting in Bethlehem, one needs drive, passion, and commitment. A lukewarm kiss by Orpah is not enough. One has to cling. This is literally d’veykus, adhering.
Turning back to the Esther story, there is no Orpah doppelganger; but it is subtly implied by Mordechai telling her, If you do not do this, salvation will come from another place… while Esther’s narrative and lineage sink into oblivion.
Choices open up entire universes. Maimonides writes in Hilchot Teshuvah that one must always view the entire world as balanced between good and evil. One small move for the good tips the balance to the good; one small move to the bad tips it to the bad. Ruth faces forwards and makes her choice. From there, the momentum begins to ratchet up until miracles roll in and the Moabite outsider becomes the mother of kings.
Reading the book of Ruth on Shavuot is an invitation to be inspired by these images of choice, courageously and with faith stepping into the terrifying unknown. It is the time of the giving of the Torah. In the midrash, God peddles the Torah to all nations of the world, and all reject it. Only Israel makes the choice to accept it, though they have no idea what they are letting themselves in for. Having chosen like this, God chooses them back. Israel’s courageous use of this moment of kairos leads to their covenant with God, to the gift of the Torah, and essentially to the entirety of Jewish history.
Who knows — at that moment at the crossroad, perhaps Ruth wasn’t at all ready to go to Canaan. But she knew that if she hesitated, one day she would regret it. When I made aliyah at 19, I wasn’t at all ready for it, but I hoped I would be down the line. It took me years to get settled and fully grow into that choice; but it has lasted me well, and I’ve been privileged to be here until this very day.
On Shavuot, we get to make the choice afresh, to accept and dedicate ourselves to a package called God, Torah, Jewish destiny. Sure, parts of it might at times not sit comfortably; but what you put into it, you get out of it. It’s the way you are facing that counts.
Let’s be inspired by the “turning towards” that Ruth does, placing her face firmly towards her unknown destiny with Naomi, towards Bethlehem and her life joining the Jewish people. If we turn our faces in the right direction, the rest will follow.