If, as the book of Ruth seems to suggest, the way to redemption is through incest, the way to acceptance can be through rejection, the way to peace may unfortunately be through knowing war, the path to serenity hardly ever avoids the way-station of agitation, the only road to belonging in my case is through the experience of exclusion.
I have not always felt good about the course of my life. I turned my back on my upbringing and community for 22 years. Upon returning, I had a feeling of invisibility, even shame: I had not participated in any of the important moments of Jewish life, I had not kept up with old friends, most grievous of all I had not used my early education or skills to make any sort of mark. I often struggled with feelings of regret, invisibility and self-rejection.
There was a Sabbath eve just a few years ago when I attended Friday night services at a synagogue we call BJ flanked by husband ET and exceptionally, my son Raphael and Jodi, his then girlfriend. I was in a phase where my “anokhi” or sense of “I” was particularly weak.
I am surprised to see Rabbi Roly pause at our row. I think surely he has come to arrange djembe lessons with my musician son Raph, or to discuss a soccer score in French with husband ET or perhaps to make the acquaintance of our loverly young lady. But as it happens, he has come to have a word with me. I am the very same Susan Reimer-Torn who’s written about Ruth, am I not? I am amazed when he asks me to be one of three speakers to teach Ruth at the upcoming Shavuot study session.
On this program on the night culminating the Omer, a period of seven weeks devoted to personal refinement, the night when from pagan times it is known that the stars are aligned for revelation, I am scheduled to speak between two rabbis. And so it comes to pass, just shy of midnight, that I take a stand in front of a congregation and speak of such things as father-daughter incest and its role in bringing about a messiah. Odd how in this way, a twisted, tortured story, or exploration of a story, gets me up there in front of a new-found congregation, sufficiently grounded in myself to set forward the conundrums of my thematic for all to ponder.
Today on the eve of the Shavuot holiday, I pause to think of Ruth in the field, of her irregular behavior, also set in the middle of the night, when she lays herself down at the feet of her wealthy kinsman Boaz. He awakens from sleep and is not at all clear who this woman is. She says simply, “anokhi Ruth,” “I am Ruth.” Her anokhi is modest but it is confident, and bold. Aviva Zornberg tells us, ” If the anokhi is of a certain quality, everything else follows.”
I am not Ruth. She is a much extolled clinger, a woman whose attachment to a people she has never known cannot be dissuaded. I am an escape artist, someone who felt it necessary to flee the very milieu that Ruth embraces. My Suzi-not-such-a good-girl anokhi is wobbly, plagued with doubt.
In the past… my recent past… I would take one step forward into reclaiming myself as a member of the tribe and then, unable to assume the risks of belonging, I would hurry to retreat many steps back. Today, as the night of revelation approaches, I am more at ease with my place in the bigger scheme of things. I understand my personal story as a classical one of exile and return. I accept that there will always be a wide range of responses to the trauma of family and faith, lost and found. Like Ruth, I am my own anokhi. I have come to redeem a questionable past and even, I dare say, to play my part in the evolution of Jewish womanhood. Ruth, it can be said, is a transformative field, a way station in my own circuitous, uncompleted road to redemption.