Without question, the two most powerful forces in life are love and death. They are the opposing polarities of existence, creating life and taking it away, bringing enormous joy and causing overwhelming sorrow. All of life is a footnote to the themes of love and death.
Love is intoxicating. The biblical book of Song of Songs portrays the enormous power of love, with lovers who are “lovesick” (a term from the Song of Songs) and act irrationally. When Jacob falls in love with Rachel, he dramatically overpays for her dowry. Even so, Jacob imagines that he is the one who is getting a bargain, because he is so in love with Rachel. Jacob is blinded by love.
William Blake captures this mindless blindness in a short poem: “Love to faults is always blind, Always is to joy inclin’d, Lawless, wing’d and unconfin’d, And breaks all chains from every mind”. Love hatches remarkable dreams that fly in every direction; with love nothing seems impossible.
Death brings a blindness of its own. When King Solomon writes the book of Kohelet, he begins with a complaint about the pointlessness of life; death confounds Solomon, the ultimate question without any answer. What point does life have, he asks, if the righteous man meets the same end as the wicked, and the wise man meets the same end as an animal? Overwhelmed by death, a blind cynicism descends, choking off any experience of joy.
The experiences described in the Song of Songs and Kohelet, the experiences of love and death, are each on their own way intoxicating; yet together they are absolutely incompatible. However, a third biblical book brings both of these themes together: the Book of Ruth. A family moves away from Israel and then is devastated by death, with a father and two sons who die at a young age. Alone and impoverished, one of the wives, Ruth, returns with her mother-in-law Naomi to Israel. Refusing to quit on life, Ruth persists despite discrimination and desperation to pursue a better life. She insists that she will rebuild the broken home and perpetuate the family of her husband and father in law; and in the end she does just that.
The Book of Ruth is not just a book of love and death; it is book about about a different type of love, a love that occurs after death. Instead of succumbing to cynicism, this love battles death; and instead of intoxication, this love arrives with the determination. The Book of Ruth defines redemption as the ability to rebuild and fix that which was broken; and that is precisely what Ruth’s love does. Ruth teaches us that the road to redemption is found when you can continue to love after a tragedy, and when your love rebuilds a broken world.
Jewish history is a history of redemption. It is the story of people who continued to love despite tragedy, who rebuilt even though they had every reason to be bitter and cynical. In the last 75 years, we have watched the story of redemption unfold once again. Crushed by the Holocaust, the Jewish people simply should have given up. Yet the survivors of these horrors followed Ruth’s example. They were part of the Bericha and smuggled in on boats to Israel, and thousands went directly to fight for the new state. Others arrived in North America ; they married, built families, businesses and communities.
I have been privileged to know many of these survivors, the redemptive rebuilders of the Jewish community. They gave charity with a fury, demanding a better world than the one they had escaped; and they celebrated with a unique joy, knowing that with each simcha they once again defied the angel of death. And when they made a l’chaim at a celebration, you could see in the twinkle of their eyes something remarkable: the miracle of redemption, the ability of love to overcome death.