Shavuot, the holiday of Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah to the Jewish People at Mt. Sinai has an additional meaning for me. The book of Ruth which we read in Shavuot tells the story of 3 widows who take their destiny in their own hands.
This is the essay which I wrote last year about Shavuot and its widows:
Once a woman becomes a widow she loses much more than her husband. As the hierarchy within the family shifts, her position often weakens. Moreover, as my friend observed, the new circumstances could affect the widow’s public status, especially if she is left with limited resources. The widow’s fall from grace is particularly harsh since it happens through no fault of her own.
In the Bible widows and orphans are regarded as the most vulnerable members of society and it is the duty of the community to take care of them.
Deuteronomy 27:19 “‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen”.
In literature, widowhood is usually synonymous with helplessness and desperation, and it serves as a quick, yet effective, characterization device. A typical widow is a dreary middle-aged woman, who is short of money. Still, with no clout, the widow doesn’t have much to lose, and in many novels she is the one to say the truth that nobody wants to hear..
There are also some young and attractive widows in literature, and when such a woman appears readers should pay close attention: as change is about to happen. Usually young widows are viewed with suspicion by other women, and are treated as easy prey by men. Either way, widows tend to find themselves outside the mainstream of society.
The subject of widowhood is one of the themes of Shavouot, the Jewish holiday which celebrates the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Traditionally on the eve of that holiday many Jewish people engage in Tikkun Shavouot, which means an all-night Torah study. This custom has evolved into communal discussions of philosophical and theological issues related to the Bible in general and to the Book of Ruth, which is read on Shavouot, in particular.
The Book of Ruth tells the story of a Jewish woman Naomi and her two Moavi daughters-in-law who, after losing their husbands in the diaspora of Moav, have to make a life change. One of the daughters-in-law, Orpa, decides to accept Naomi’s offer and stay behind in Moav. Although Orpa’s decision is told in one short line, I was struck by the clever characterization of the different widows in the text. Orpa makes a brave choice; she is left on her own and has to build a new life for herself. We hear no more of Orpa, and Naomi and Ruth, return together to the land of Israel.
In contrast to the literary stereotype of the helpless widow, Naomi cannot afford to be weak, she has to take care of another widow– the young Ruth. Thus, in order to secure their future, Naomi devises a plan of reclaiming the family estate. This is to be done by marrying Ruth off to an eligible man, Boaz, from her own clan. Many widows throughout history in literature and in real life have done just that. But while literature, such an action is often seen as cold opportunism, at the time of a Bible marrying a young widow was regarded as an obligation of the single man from the same clan.
It is clear that not only Ruth accepts Naomi’s authority but even Boaz, soon to be her son-in-law, recognizes the strength of the older woman and respects her as the head of the family.
Reading the Book of Ruth is much like reading a play; Naomi seems like a minor actress, but most of her work is done behind the scenes. She is the creator and the director of that play. If we pay close attention to the young widow Ruth– the lead actress, we realize that she trusts her director to bring about a happy ending (the marriage which would also result, three generations later, in a more general happy ending –the birth of king David), and plays her part perfectly.
The Book of Ruth is an empowering story about friendship and great teamwork among women. But for me, as a widow, this book symbolizes the victory of an older widow who, with courage and resourcefulness, managed to change a hopeless reality and create a future for her and her family.