D’var Shavuot 2020, ‘Wither Thou Goest’

Ilana Krygier Lapides


Wither Thou goest – I will go.
Wither Thou lodgest – I will lodge.
Thy people shall be my people.
Wither Thou goest – I will go.

The pilgrimage festival of Shavuot is upon us. Shavuot commemorates the anniversary of our receiving the Torah. We celebrate by listening to the liturgical poem, the Akdamut, eating dairy products (reminding us that studying Torah is as sweet on our tongue as milk and honey), and engaging in all-night Bible study. We also read the Book of Ruth.

My first exposure to the above passage was via Leonard Cohen’s beautiful rendition. At that time, I thought it was a romantic love song. I’ve quoted it to my husband and, if it registered at all that the words were from our tradition, I assumed they were from the Song of Songs. 

But, no. These are the words that Ruth speaks to her mother-in-law, Naomi, in the Book of Ruth. The story begins in the land of Moab, a notorious enemy of Israel, where Naomi’s family has settled due to famine.  Naomi’s husband passes away, as do her two sons, and they leave behind two Moabite daughters-in-law. Despite Naomi’s insistence that the girls return to their families, one of them, Ruth, insists on staying with Naomi and follows her back to Israel. (Ruth 1:16-17)

It is surprising that Ruth is so attached to her mother-in-law. In traditional Jewish humour, mothers-in-law don’t always fare well – we all know the jokes. But Ruth remains loyal to her mother-in-law and refuses to leave her.

Earlier in the Book of Ruth, we come across the term chesed. This word does not have a direct translation into English. It is sometimes spoken of as mercy or pity, but what it really means is loving kindness. 

The loving kindness between Ruth and Naomi is worth mentioning here because, in these times, it is hard to imagine two people from such different backgrounds intersecting this affectionately. 

For most of us, our internal radar is so perfectly tuned to the way we see the world that other perspectives barely register. Technology allows us to limit our intellectual and emotional intake to sources that align with our point of view.  We express ourselves into echo chambers disguised as social media and hear only what we already suspect is true.

A dissenting perspective is not only unwelcome but we worry it’s wrong and stupid, even hateful or dangerous. It sometimes feels like our very survival depends on holding tight to our world view. This does us a disservice – seeing the world through a lens of fear limits our knowledge and, by extension, our opportunities for growth.

By all evidence, Ruth and Naomi should have been enemies. Instead, these two women banded together, created a family, and loved and learned from one another. Ruth, with Naomi’s support, became the great-grandmother of King David, who ushered in one of the greatest periods of peace and prosperity in biblical history.

Maybe we have something to learn from these two women who rose out of tragic circumstances, made a choice to trust one another, and left a legacy of kindness. On this strange and difficult Shavuot, when Yizkor is online and we eat our cheesecake in isolation, perhaps we can open our minds and souls to a new way of being and allow thoughts of chesed not just into our hearts but into our deeds.

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a rabbinical student at Jewish Studies Learning Institute.