Healing lies within in remembering who are.
My recent interactions display a common theme.
“Rabbi, after my husband passed away, I don’t know who I am anymore.”
“Now that my children have moved out of the house, my purpose is gone.”
“All of my friends are starting a family; I am no longer sure of where I belong.”
“Since the divorce, my community no longer looks the same.”
The theme being: as life plays out, we all have shifts in our identity and struggle with how to move forward.
The story of Ruth and Naomi reveals a powerful anecdote to the emotional and often physical illness of losing sight of who we think we are. The text reads as follows:
The women of Bethlehem come to greet her.
“Is this Naomi?”
“Don’t call me Naomi. Call me the bitter one because God has made my life so very bitter. I was full when I left, and empty, God brought me back. So why should you call me Naomi, when God has afflicted me so?”
Naomi returns to Bethlehem a stripped woman. Once a wife, her husband has died. Once a mother, her children are no longer living. Naomi pleads with her daughters in law to leave her side for she is no longer the woman she once was. A nurturer, a companion, a bearer of life. What can she possibly offer them? She is depleted. Now, she sees herself as nothing more than a fleeting shadow, a nameless woman drowning in the darkness of personal tragedy.
But the purposeless woman finds a way out of the gloom. As Naomi pushes away the remaining remnants of her past life and cajoles her daughters in law to leave her side, Ruth davka bah. Ruth clings to her.
Ruth saves Naomi’s life and quite possibly, her own. Ruth knows; she realizes that in surviving the pain, agony and misery of losing their loved ones, together, they won’t lose themselves completely. Together, Naomi will still be Naomi and Ruth will still be Ruth. Forever changed by their circumstances, but forever able to remind themselves of the mother and wives they once were. Ruth’s greatest piece of chesed—of kindness– is helping Naomi preserve a piece of herself. Reminding Naomi that although she feels so lost—aimlessly grasping onto the rails of life—Ruth is here to guide her back onto the path—the path of the living.
Midrash explains that the Book of Ruth isn’t meant to teach us the particulars of Jewish law. Rather, the story of interpersonal relationships teaches us how to display the greatest forms of loving kindness.
One of the greatest acts of chesed we can do for another person is remind them of who they are. To remark to the mother whose children passed away what an incredible mommy she is. To tell the widow or widower what you remember about their spouse and what a unique relationship they have. When someone passes away or something shifts in our life story, it doesn’t mean that piece of our identity dies as well. We still hold the memories, stories, pain, joy, sorrow, complexity, and wonder in our hearts. All of it adds up to who we are, right now.
Let us cling to one another and be kind. Together, we remind each other of who we are and who we will become.