Setting our Foundation on Shavuot
There is an elderly man named Jay in my congregation who came into my office last week and told me some disturbing news. He lived his life with dignity and worked hard as a social worker. He did “everything right” - saving for retirement, raising a family, buying a house. But when the market crashed as well as his health, he lost it all. Now, bound to his wheelchair, he sat across my desk and asked me, “What am I going to do now, Rabbi? I feel like a piece of trash, and I’ve just been thrown away.”
The apparent truth is that in a cold, brutish world, Jay is trash. If we measure his value to society by his ability to earn a living, then his value is minimal because of his medical conditions and his age. He takes much and gives little. This point of view says he should be cast aside, thrown out, so we can concentrate on those who are “net contributors” to our community.
Trash. As rabbi, I have to ask, is that what we have done to those who are vulnerable?
I know our sacred tradition is a wellspring for answering the most perplexing of human questions. Over and over in the Tanakh, the text confounds our assumptions about power, social placement and ethical expectations. Where our culture seems to say “might is right,” the Torah says something different. This message is clearest in the scroll read on Shavuot, the Book of Ruth.
Ruth’s is a story about a woman who is a little like Jay. She has a husband. She’s building a life with her family. She is doing everything right. But because of some medical loss (her husband dies of illness), she loses everything: her husband, her land, her sense of self. She ends up among the poorest of the nation, the gleaners, who have nothing to eat and must take what they can after the harvest (Ruth 2:2). She too feels like trash, thrown away because she has no power. Yet it is there, in the field that she meets Boaz, who changes her life. He picks her up and brings her inside his home. She bears his son, Obed, the grandfather of King David (Ruth 4:17). The moral of the story is as simple as it is confounding: Even a poor gleaner can give birth to a king – and all it takes is for a concerned person to pick up those who are tossed aside and empower them to improve their lives. What others throw away, we bring to the center. As King David himself wrote, “The stone the builders have thrown away has become the chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22).
At the foundation of the Jewish view of human living is the idea that those who are broken, imperfect and enfeebled become our bedrock. And on Shavuot, when our eyes are fixed on the heights of Mount Sinai, when we embrace the giving of the Torah itself, we read the book of Ruth to remember that the real moments of salvation lie with the lowly beggar woman, and not only in the maelstrom of revelation.
At the foundation of the Jewish viewpoint on life is that we do not throw anyone away. Human beings are not chattel to be used and discarded. Human worth cannot be measured simply because of productivity. The Godliness that makes us unique among the created world cries out for justice at every moment. People like Ruth and Jay must be brought to the center to show that our vision of the world is one of sacred covenant against brutish vitalism.
Luckily, Jay left my office with some comfort. He comes to synagogue weekly to help out with our Tot Shabbat. I worked with him to get food assistance through Jewish Family Service Food Bank, and he’s slowly getting on his feet again. I’m buttressed by the wellspring of our tradition that reminds us again in the words of David, “God raises the poor from the dust, lifting the needy from the trash heap to the set them with the great ones of God’s people” (Psalm 113:7-8).
Photo at top right courtesy of Chabad.org; photo at left courtesy of Valley Beth Shalom.