May 26, 2023
Clinging to One Another
This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.
"Clinging to One Another"
Cantor Jenna Pearsall
Today we are observing Shavuot, a day on which we not only remember and reflect on the Torah being given at Sinai and take part in eating delicious dairy desserts, but we also read the story of Ruth. This week I’ve been doing quite a bit of reflection myself as I’ll be ringing in one year of marriage with my husband, Connor, in just two short weeks. As I reread Ruth’s narrative of struggle, loyalty, and unselfish love this Shavuot, I began to draw parallels to my own shared story with the person I love and am fortunate enough to be married to.
When Ruth’s husband is killed and her mother-in-law, Naomi, is also widowed, Ruth is at a crossroads. She could take the easy route, returning to her home of origin, the home in which she knows safety and comfort resides. Alternatively, she could choose to follow Naomi, going further down a road that she does not know, traversing the completely uncharted territory of Judah. Naomi even gives her three chances to choose the easy route.
Three times in the first chapter of the Book of Ruth, Naomi desperately pleads with Ruth and Orpah to turn back. “Turn back,” she says, “for you have already done enough. Turn back, for I have no more sons to promise you. Turn back, for my lot is far more bitter than yours,” as she’s lost both her husband and sons. Orpah takes her up on the third command, kissing her farewell, but Ruth is said to have clung to her and uttered the famous line: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
A powerful statement, one that would echo from then on throughout the ages as people not born into the Jewish religion followed Ruth’s lead and decided to make the Jewish people theirs, and in turn, reverberating into my own life when my husband made the decision years ago to adopt my people as his own, immersing in the mikvah and starting his Jewish journey.
But what intrigues me the most in this chapter is what it says in the Hebrew in response to Naomi’s pleas for Ruth to turn back, saying “Rut davkah bah” (Ruth clung to her). Dr. Yael Ziegler speaks of this in her book entitled Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy, saying “Ruth is a devuka, a woman who knows how to fasten herself to another person…. The act of cleaving to another is the very opposite of selfishness.” Ziegler continues, further explaining that Ruth’s clinging to Naomi in this moment shows their “all-encompassing connection…in which one party embraces the totality of the other, totally and completely.” You may recognize this word as related to the kabbalistic concept of devekut, a clinging or closeness to God, achieved through lifting up our prayers, meditating, or even singing a repetitive niggun–all of these can help to achieve this ecstatic state of closeness with God. It is considered the highest rung on a spiritual ladder, only reachable through pure commitment and religious love.
I think it was no mistake that the verb davkah, or clinging, was chosen to describe Ruth’s commitment to Naomi in the face of so much loss and upheaval. This was a spiritual, holy clinging of two souls, who desperately needed each other. Ruth’s courageous choice to adopt Naomi’s people as her own, to take a risk, and pursue the path less taken when she didn’t know the potential outcome—these were acts of chesed, acts of loving kindness toward her mother-in-law who needed her the most during this transitional time.
Why do we cling to one another? As I’ve been reflecting on one year of marriage at the same time I have been reading about Ruth’s sacred clinging to Naomi and her incredible acts of loving kindness, I realized how integral to my marriage these acts of loving kindness have been. When Connor converted to Judaism, it was a true act of chesed, something he was doing not only for himself, but in an effort to bind us together. And to watch him walk out of the mikveh was so emotional, so powerful an image, that it felt like my heart was breaking open just watching him.
Clinging to each other in the hard moments of transition as well has brought a level of holiness that I imagine was felt between Naomi and Ruth during the challenges they faced. But they faced them together, holding on to one another and building something holy together to triumph over despair. Ruth put Naomi’s needs before her own, and that concept is not foreign to my relationship with my husband. Five years ago, when I asked Connor to move to New York so that I could pursue my dreams of becoming a cantor, he could have easily said, ‘No’ and stayed where he was in his comfort zone, with his community, his job, and his family nearby. Instead, my husband chose to be like Ruth, to come to a city quite different than his own with no plan other than for us to be a family and to put our relationship first. It was the ultimate act of loving kindness.
So, why do we need the Book of Ruth? In Ruth Rabbah, a commentary on the Book of Ruth, our sages ask why these four chapters were written and included in our Tanakh. Ultimately, they wager that it was written “To teach us the greatness of the reward for acts of loving kindness.” These acts of chesed can actually help us to achieve deeper connections with those we do them for, and will in turn bring us closer to achieving that clinging to God the kabbalists talked of.
In a midrash, Rabbi Joshua exclaims, "Oy! What a devastation for us that the temple where Israel atoned for our sins has been destroyed." Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai replied, "My son, do not fear. We have another form of atonement that is just as effective. Acts of chesed.” Acts of loving kindness are equated here with temple sacrifice, saying that God is equally pleased by both offerings and in our efforts to show our devotion.
Not every day of marriage are you going to feel like what you need is clinging to one another. There are going to be the times when—and I know them well at this point—when one of you wants to watch Survivor, and the other wants to play video games. There may be many moments when you need to embrace your individuality, have your reality TV show “me time,” and focus on your own needs and goals. But in challenging moments, God lives in our ability to cling to one another for support and love. I’ve seen this community do it when one of our own loses a loved one. I’ve seen it when we rally around one another to fight for the causes we collectively believe in, and when we cling to one another as we face world tragedies.
We need each other, and by engaging in these selfless acts of chesed evident throughout the Book of Ruth, we can better our community and our holy partnerships within it. It takes courage to be the one to make the first move in committing to lift one another up in this way, so I will leave you with my commitment: Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. And may our acts of loving kindness toward one another create holy sparks, bringing us higher up on that spiritual ladder, closer to God.