The story of Ruth is a story unlike any other in the Biblical canon. The book is a short four chapter saga about a Moabite woman who becomes the great-grandmother to King David. The story tells of the marriage of a non-Israelite woman to an Israelite man, even though the bible previously outlawed Israelites marrying Moabite woman. The story is a riches-to rags-to riches account of two female protagonists journeying across the desert. The story “contains no legal enactments, no decisions on the question of ritual cleanliness or prohibition” the story does “teach us how great is the reward of those who perform deeds of kindness (Ruth Rabbah 2:14).” The story of Ruth is of chosen family. Of the connection, love and obligation one woman has for another. The story of Ruth is a wonderful reminder that it doesn’t matter where one came from, it matters what one chooses to do, and how one chooses to act.
I was shopping a few weeks ago and a man stopped me to ask where I got the mask I was wearing. I replied, “My mother-in-law is a nurse, she graciously provided me with it.”
“Finally, something a mother-in-law is good for huh? The man replied before he walked off.”
I could not believe this encounter. I have heard the jokes about mother-in-laws. I know how challenging one Jewish mother can be, let alone a second. But I could not get over this stranger “joking” about my mother-in-law.
In the weeks after my wedding I was continually asked, “so, does it feel any different?” And my response was “in most ways it doesn’t, but I do feel a different obligation towards Sarah’s family. Her parents and brother truly do feel like my family now.” When the stranger made fun of my mother-in-law, he was making fun of my family. This is what I imagine Ruth meant when she responded to her mother-in-law Naomi when she was offered to return home after the death of her husband (Naomi’s son), “Do not entreat me to leave you, to return from following you, for wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. So may the Lord do to me and so may He continue, if anything but death separate me and you (Ruth 1:16-17).”
Ruth had an opportunity to return to her family. She had followed the course of traditional marriage, and left her father’s home to join the home of her husband. Her husband now was dead, she had the opportunity to return. When handed this opportunity, Ruth chose who her family would be.
The concept of “chosen family” came into prominence by the queer community in the 20th century. According to the Pew research center 39% of queer adults have “have experienced rejection from a family member or friends” (Pew 2019). In response to this Kyle Casey Chu writes, “in the face of rejection from one’s family or friends, queer people have built chosen families since time immemorial: families we construct by hand and heart, in an effort to seek out the support and love one’s biological or legal family might not be able to provide” (Chu 2017). As Ruth demonstrates, this seeking of love and connection is not unique to the 20th and 21st century LBTQ community. The desire and need to seek out love and connection, and to hold one once one has found it is even found in the Bible.
In the verse before Ruth’s famous declaration we are told that Naomi’s other daughter-in-law Orpah chose to return home but Ruth דָּ֥בְקָה (davekah) cleaved to Naomi. The word דָּ֥בְקָה, cleave, is fascinating, specifically regarding loving relationships. The first instance of the root דבק occurs in Genesis 2:24 in the second telling of the creation of man and woman. After no fitting helpmeet is found for Adam amongst the animal creations, God creates Eve from taking Adam’s rib, of this Adam says, “this one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman, for from man was she taken” (Genesis 2:23). The Torah then instructs that “a man will leave his father and mother and cleaved to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). In the story of Ruth and Naomi, Ruth has left her father and mother’s house to cling to her mother-in-law. Ruth has become connected to Naomi, she has chosen Naomi to be her family.
Similar to the LGBT community, camp offers a variety of opportunities for created family. We are a tzrif family, a k’vutza family, and a camp family. Each summer, we act like Ruth. We leave our family’s home and journey to Webster to cleave to our camp family (of course we miss our families and LOVE receiving letters and care packages). For those 1,2,4,5 or 6 weeks we chose and create new family relationships. I specifically remember when I was a camper, one day each summer would be “family photos” in the chadar. The photographer would stand in the front of the room, and every family unit would have a chance to take a photo with whoever was at camp. This was an awesome opportunity for my sister and me, along with our first, second and even sometimes third cousins to get one shot all together and make our parents back home pleased. I keenly remember that while my biological family was taking photos together, campers and staff that didn’t have biological family at camp would also group up and take photos. This is one small example among so many of choosing family in action!
This summer, we cannot act like Ruth. The famine that drove her father-in-law out of the land of Canaan originally has struck us today, and out of concern for our safety we cannot journey north. We cannot be with our chosen family, we are stuck cleaving to the family we live with 11 months out of the year. While we aren’t able to physically be together this summer, we deeply feel and recognize the loss of being apart from our chosen family. We miss our cabin family. We miss our camp family. We are staying in touch. We are doing our virtual chugim and creating memories from afar, but we cannot hug our chosen family. In this strange summer, let us enjoy time with the family we live with year round. Let us rejoice in the fact that we are cleaving or being cleaved onto, even if we may not love every moment of it. Let us recognize that this summer is different, but next summer we will again have the opportunity to choose who our family will be for summer 2021 and beyond. We are one Herzl family, whether in Webster, Kansas City, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Israel or anywhere else. May we continue building those connections from afar, and cleave onto each other like there is no tomorrow when we are back together again.
Chag Shavuot Sameach,