There was a delicious breeze in the air when I walked to the Western Wall (kotel in Hebrew) during the holiday of Shavuot last month. Already late in the afternoon, my husband and I awakened from our cheesecake-induced slumbers and decided to grab a couple of bottles of water for the hike to Judaism’s holiest site. “After all,” we reasoned, “people dream of visiting here and touching the stones, and here we are, only a 35-minute walk. There is no excuse for being lazy on the day when the kotel is the place to be!”
And it’s true; for many years I walked to the kotel on Shavuot morning only to be greeted by a carpet of humanity, perhaps 15,000 people, pushing their respective ways through the Arab and Jewish quarters in order to press through – one at a time – the weapon detectors and security gates.
As we traversed the steep incline on Azza Street, my husband asked me why I thought we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot and, even more curious, “Why is it called ‘Ruth’? Shouldn’t it be the Book of Naomi? Or the Book of Boaz? Why would the tome we read on a day commemorating the holiest event in our history be named after a gentile, one whose entire lineage stems from an illicit sexual union?” I was sweating profusely and cursing my osteo-arthritic knees, so I asked that I be given a little time to think about it.
Reaching the top of the hill, we observed a small crowd milling about the semi-permanent structure known as the “Gilad Shalit Tent.” Parked directly outside of the Prime Minister’s residence, it is a main thoroughfare for cars, buses and taxis. There is not a Jewish soul in Israel today who doesn’t moan, “tsk-tsk,” or sigh when passing the site. Everyone shudders and silently asks, “What if that were me? What would I do? How can they live?” Parents of soldiers seem to be uncharacteristically quiet on the subject. I know. I am one of those parents.
Aviva Shalit has taken to knitting during the long hours in the tent that now appears to be a hodgepodge information center, yellow-ribbon-and-brochure distribution point and graffiti magnet for sympathetic street artists. Her husband, Noam, appears to be even-tempered and indefatigable. He is always surrounded by well-wishers, heartbroken empathizers and government representatives both from Israel and abroad. All who enter clearly need to vent the same agonizing frustration over this real-life nightmare that highlights our national impotence in the face of inhuman cruelty.
At the time of this writing, no one knows the end of the tale. It is still being written as both the optimists and pessimists among us exercise requisite restraint. But the faces of the Shalits remained with me that holiday afternoon as we strolled alongside Independence Park, the American Consulate and through the Mamilla Shopping Arcade. Yellow ribbons were festooned throughout the city, on almost every car and hanging from countless book-satchels and leather purses.
Walking directly into the Arab shuk despite being warned of the danger, my husband and I remained fiercely aware that this is our city, our land, and the children who are defending it are our children – each and every one. Aviva and Noam Shalit did not volunteer to become poster-children for a “Where is Our Son?” campaign but have brought this land to its collective knees in refusing to go home and wait for some news. Oh, they are waiting, all right. Waiting on the street. Outside of the Prime Minister’s driveway. In easy reach of journalists, electronic media correspondents, visiting university professors and Christian clergy. Their misery is palpable, and they stubbornly refuse to suffer this anguish privately. They serve as a reminder that Gilad is our son. His schoolbooks still line the shelves of his bedroom. His dinner is waiting.
By the time we passed the tent, my husband’s Book of Ruth question was nagging at me, and I was feeling a little annoyed that he had turned what began as a pleasant outing into a yeshiva-discussion! “Perhaps Ruth is remarkable, because when the going gets tough, she digs in her heels and joins the unpopular team,” I offered. “Not only does she want to be part of the Jewish nation; she agonizes over the dignity of others.” Feeling like I might be onto something, I offered that by assisting Naomi in keeping the memories of her sons’ alive, Ruth – a former princess – insists on laboring as a peasant rather than have Naomi endure this humiliation. She offers herself to the aged Boaz, and his gratitude is evident when he acknowledges that she has chosen to squander her youth on him.
Difficult as it was, I had to remind myself that even though I knew the outcome of Ruth (she is destined to be the grandmother of King David), it is critical to examine the story as presented; no credits, no IMDB synopses, no Variety write-ups. Only by reading it in this manner does the story stand out as a paradigm of selflessness.
One might ask, “Where are the laws in the book? Aren’t there any mitzvoth, i.e., commandments?” Ruth wasn’t Jewish. The commandments did not apply to her. And, yet, we learn the deepest lesson of all: Before there is observance, there must be heart. Before one learns the steps of the dance, he must hear the music. Ruth teaches us that before one becomes a professor, a rabbi, a minister, a pundit, he/she had better be a mensch. That one may never be lofty enough to understand the depth of respective Torah law but that even a field gleaner is not exempt from treating others decently and with deference.
After our kotel prayers, we returned the way we came along the now darkened Jerusalem streets. Again passing the Shalit tent, I saw that the crowd had changed, but, as always, the family was not alone. Suddenly it became clear why the book is called “Ruth” and not something else. Because it is only about opening one’s heart and being part of the program. Religion, gender, location notwithstanding. Outcome be damned.
Like Ruth, all of us have the opportunity to convert into something kinder. It took a little time, but I understood the implicit message that God chose to impart while praying along with 10,000 Jews on a breezy afternoon last month during the holiday of Shavuot. The same lesson was iterated only minutes later while passing the not-so-temporary home of the mother and father who are waiting for their baby to come home.