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Ruth's Journey

Learn how Ruth changed her life by making a series of bold choices, and examine how taking risks, small or large, might lead to positive transformations in your own life.

Overview

Enduring Understandings

  • Taking risks can be daunting because there is no guarantee that the outcome will be positive, but risk-taking can also lead to opportunities and growth that we may otherwise never experience.
  • Ruth’s bravery can inspire us to embark on journeys of self-transformation in our own lives
  • Creating art about women in Torah continues the millennia-old tradition of interpretation, while bringing female characters to the center of the process

Essential Questions

  • Why is Ruth’s story important?
  • How do we decide when to take risks in our own lives, and how can Ruth’s story help us through this challenging process?
  • How does Alicia’s song contribute to our understanding of Ruth’s story?

Notes to Teacher

We encourage you to make this curriculum your own. For instance, if there isn’t time during your class period to have students sketch out their own creative interpretations, you can either leave this part out or treat it as an extension activity.

We also encourage you to include as much hevruta (partner) study as possible. If you are new to hevruta study, you can think of it as discussion between two partners who can help each other learn by challenging each other’s first impressions. Breaking the group into pairs and having them read texts out loud, rather than silently, is an essential part of hevruta study.

Lastly, when studying the Torah text, we find it helpful to have students identify every problem, difficulty, or moment of confusion they can find in the text, as if they were on a scavenger hunt. This opens up the door to midrash, the Jewish tradition of creative Torah interpretation, which imagines answers to those questions.

Introductory Essay(s)

"Ruth: Explanation of a Musical Midrash"

by Alicia Jo Rabins

I write some Girls in Trouble songs because I am drawn to a particular character or story; others are commissions or requests. This song was commissioned by G-dcast, a San Francisco-based organization who create wonderful animations of Torah and Jewish text.

G-dcast asked me to write a song about Ruth which would touch on the theme of intermarriage. Although I had not thought of Ruth’s story in these terms exactly (since the traditional understanding is of Ruth as a convert), exploring Ruth through this lens made intuitive sense to me. After all, intermarriage involves two people bridging a distance, and Ruth’s story also takes her across a great distance: from one people to another, from one faith to another, and from widowhood to marriage and motherhood. I saw themes of bridging cultural divides and crossing from familiar to new throughout Ruth’s story. In writing this song, I hoped to connect Ruth’s story to the idea of individual growth, risk-taking and self-transformation – and, additionally, to write a song which could be understood as a love song about intermarriage.

The song begins: “Sometimes the road chooses you, and not the other way around.” This describes the sense of being called to make changes in one’s life. In my own life, I have sometimes felt strongly drawn towards a path to the extent that I feel chosen or called by it, rather than the other way around.

My Jewish path has certainly reflected this: I grew up in a secular Jewish family, but suddenly found myself falling in love with traditional Jewish texts after a chance encounter with them in college. I felt a profound need to discover the stories, laws and customs of my heritage. Exploring the world of Orthodox Judaism after a suburban secular upbringing was a dramatic transition for me: not entirely different, perhaps, from Ruth’s journeying to the Israelite people from her Moabite origins.

After I graduated college, to the surprise of my family and even myself, I turned down a job offer in New York City and signed up to study in a progressive yeshiva in Jerusalem for a year, despite the fact that neither I nor my parents had ever been to Israel before. I felt I had to leave my current life, to step away from what I already knew, in order to explore this world. The year in Jerusalem turned into two years, and by the time I returned home, I had gone from knowing only the Hebrew alphabet and a couple blessings, to being profoundly involved with Jewish texts and traditions. Reading my own story into Ruth’s, I can’t help but imagine that Ruth might have felt similarly, radically called to follow Naomi and join her people, no matter how illogical or inexplicable that move was.

I also appreciate how Ruth’s personal, individual actions at the beginning of the story turn out to have profound communal implications that reverberate throughout generations. The story begins with an intimate exchange between Ruth and Naomi, two seemingly powerless women in a faraway land; by the end, an entire community gathers in celebration at the city gates, and we see a bird’s- eye view of generations leading from Ruth to King David.

To my reading, there is a powerful truth contained in this movement from the personal to the communal. Our individual stories are part of a much greater, multi- generational saga. The decisions we make in our personal lives can change the course of history. Just like Ruth’s story, our stories matter.

Lesson Plan

Intro

  • Invite students to introduce themselves and to share a risk, large or small, that they have taken in the past.
  • You may want to let students know that this session explores the character of Ruth through the lens of her spiritual journey, and how Ruth’s self-transformation can relate to our own lives.

Core Story

  • Introduce hevruta, divide class, pass out “core story” sheets
  • Hevrutas read core story to each other and explore discussion questions. (Please note that the text we have provided is a summary of Ruth’s story and not the original text. The Book of Ruth is short-story length: too long to read together in a session which also explores other sources, but reasonable for reading at home, or in a dedicated class. If you wish to use the original text, the JPS translation is a good starting place, but feel free to use any version.)
  • Come back together to discuss what arose in hevruta. Begin by inviting students to share the questions they found and listing them on the board. Explain that finding unanswered questions in the text is the starting point of midrash (interpretation of Torah).
  • If you find that students are eager to debate about answers to their questions, this can lead to a great discussion, but remind them that the Jewish interpretative tradition allows for multiple answers to a single question.

Song

  • Listen to “Separate Histories” with lyrics
  • Discuss questions as a group

Create Your Own Midrash

  • Time for individual brainstorming/freewriting/drawing with “Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations”
  • If time, opportunity to share creative responses. Students should resist the temptation to critique others’ responses.
  • If desired, share students’ midrashim by adding them to the Gallery of Biblical Women on the Girls in Trouble website.

Document Studies

Song Recording

Song Recording

Separate Histories

Full image
Audio recording of Alicia Jo Rabins' song, "Separate Histories."

Core story with discussion questions

Core story with discussion questions

Core story

The Book of Ruth is short-story length: too long to read together in a session which also explores other sources, but reasonable for reading at home, or in a dedicated class. The JPS translation is a good starting place, but feel free to use any version.

Here is an edited version of Wikipedia’s summary:

During the time of the Judges when there was a famine, an Israelite family from Bethlehem – Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion – emigrated to the nearby country of Moab. Elimelech died, and the sons married two Moabite women: Mahlon married Ruth and Chilion married Orpah.

After about ten years, the two sons of Naomi also died in Moab (Ruth 1:4). Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem. She told her daughters-in-law to return to their own mothers, and remarry. Orpah reluctantly left; however, Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; 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. Thus and more may God do to me if anything but death parts me from you” (1:16–17).

The two women returned to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest, and in order to support her mother-in-law and herself, Ruth went to the fields to glean. As it happened, the field she went to belonged to a man named Boaz, who was kind to her because he had heard of her loyalty to her mother-in-law. Ruth told Naomi of Boaz’s kindness, and she gleaned in his field through the remainder of the barley and wheat harvest.

Boaz was a close relative of Naomi’s husband’s family. He was therefore obliged by the Levirate law to marry Mahlon’s widow, Ruth, in order to carry on his family’s inheritance. Naomi sent Ruth to the threshing floor at night and told her to go where he slept, and “uncover his feet [which some commentators consider a Biblical euphemism for private parts], and lie down; and he will tell you what are to do” (3:4).

That night, Boaz “ate and drank and his heart was in a cheerful mood” (3:7). After he lay down on the threshing floor, Ruth did as Naomi had instructed her. Boaz, startled, turned to see that a woman lay at his feet. When asked who she was, she replied: “I am your handmaid Ruth. Spread your robe over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman” (3:9). Boaz blessed her and agreed to do all that was required, and he noted that, “all the elders of my town know what a fine woman you are” (3:11). He then acknowledged that he was a close relative, but that there was one who was closer. Boaz told Ruth to stay with him for the night, and promised that in the morning he would offer the closer relative the opportunity to redeem her, and that if the relative refused, Boaz himself would marry Ruth. Ruth remained “at his feet” until she returned into the city in the morning, before anyone else woke up.

Early that morning, Boaz discussed the issue with the other male relative, Ploni Almoni (“so-and-so”), before the town elders. The other male relative was unwilling to jeopardize the inheritance of his own estate by marrying Ruth, and so relinquished his right of redemption, thus allowing Boaz to marry Ruth. They finalized the agreement by the nearer kinsman, Ploni Almoni, taking off his shoe and handing it over to Boaz (4:7–18). Boaz and Ruth were married in the presence of the town elders and “all the people at the gate,” and had a son named Oved: who is “the father of Jesse, the father of David” (4:13–17). Later, Boaz died, and Ruth and Naomi raised Oved together.

Discussion Questions

  1. What problems or questions do you find in the story?
  2. What is your favorite moment in this story?

Song lyrics with discussion questions

Song lyrics with discussion questions

Separate Histories

by Girls in Trouble/Alicia Jo Rabins

Teacher’s note: Alicia has written two different Girls in Trouble songs about Ruth. This unit is structured around the narration of Ruth’s journey in her own voice, called Separate Histories. in addition, there’s a simple, folky interpretation of Ruth’s declaration to Naomi called Where You Go, which can be found on the album Girls in Trouble (available online).

Sometimes the road chooses you
and not the other way around
I don’t know how but I just knew
you would lead me to sacred ground
I was living in a place but it was time for me to leave I’d lost all of my faith but I was ready to believe

In the middle of the night
I went and lay down by your feet
I knew that if the time was right you would welcome me
I crept away before the break of day
By then I knew that you would come to me

And all the people in the gate
and all the elders they will say
we are the witnesses today to this covenant you make
Generations pass generations come
And now our separate histories are one

Discussion Questions

  1. What emotions does this song evoke for you?
  2. Do any of your personal experiences come to mind when you hear this song?
  3. What kind of person is Ruth in this song? (remember, she is the “I” in the song).

Footnoted song lyrics

Footnoted song lyrics

Separate Histories (Footnoted)

Sometimes the road chooses you
and not the other way around
I don’t know how but I just knew
you would lead me to sacred ground1
I was living in a place but it was time for me to leave I’d lost all of my faith but I was ready to believe2

In the middle of the night
I went and lay down by your feet3
I knew that if the time was right you would welcome me
I crept away before the break of day4
By then I knew that you would come to me5

And all the people in the gate
and all the elders they will say6
we are the witnesses today to this covenant you make7
Generations pass generations come8
And now our separate histories are one9

1 Literally, Ruth follows Naomi to the sacred ground of Judaism: the land of Israel. I also mean this figuratively, as the “promised land” or “sacred ground” more broadly interpreted: the place we set out for when we embark on a pilgrimage, be it physical or internal.

2 When I lived in New York City, I taught for a wonderful congregation called Kolot Chayeinu. They described themselves as a place “where doubt is an act of faith.” I love that phrase; the complicated relationship of doubt to faith fascinates me. I imagine Ruth as a spiritual pilgrim who has to be honest with herself about the doubt she experiences in her life in order to explore a deeper relationship to faith (by following Naomi into spiritual, cultural and personal parts unknown).

3 Ruth 3:6–7: “She went down to the threshing floor … then she went over stealthily and uncovered his feet and lay down.”

4 Ruth 3:14: “So she lay at his feet until dawn. She rose before one person could distinguish another, for he thought, ‘Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.’”

5 Although I had not read this midrash at the time I wrote the song, this resonates with a rabbinic interpretation of Ruth’s “self-prophecy” from Ruth rabbah 5:2:
Ruth fell on her face and bowed [to Boaz], saying, “Why have I been so lucky that you have chosen to single me out [le-hakireni, lit., to know me]?” (Ruth 2:10). This teaches that Ruth prophesied about herself, that one day Boaz would “know” her intimately.

6 Ruth 4:9–11: “And Boaz said to the elders and to the rest of the people, ‘You are witnesses today that … I am acquiring [note: not our ideal of marriage, I know!] Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, as my wife… All the people at the gate and the elders answered, ‘We are witnesses. May God make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel! Prosper in Ephrathah and perpetuate your name in Bethlehem!’”

7 Ibid (see note 6)

8 Ruth 4:12: “And may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah—through the offspring which God will give you by this young woman.”

9 Ruth 4:18-22: “This is the line of Perez: Perez begot Hezron, Hezron begot Ram, Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, Nahshon begot Salmon, Salmon begot Boaz, Boaz begot Obed, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David.”

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

  • Create your own interpretation of “Where you go, I will go” (Ruth 1:16) through a drawing, piece of writing, dance, or song.
  • Write a poem or love letter to a person, animal or object in your own life based on this phrase
  • Write a song or chant using Ruth’s words “Where you go, I will go.”
  • Create a drawing or dance about Ruth and Naomi’s relationship.
  • Write a poem or monologue in the voice of Ruth about the transformations she has gone through in her life. (This could also be a dance, song, comic or drawing).
  • Write a poem or monologue in your own voice about how you are similar to or different from Ruth.
  • Create an image, poem, monologue, song or dance about a moment when you left your home to follow something or someone you loved.
  • Create an image, poem, monologue, song or dance in Ruth’s voice, describing how she found the courage to take bold risks in her life. You could write about Ruth’s leaving everything she knew to follow Naomi, her adopting a new culture, or her approaching Boaz at night.
  • Write Ruth’s story in six words.
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Cover Art for "Ruth's Journey"
Full image
Cover art by Uri Berkowitz for "Ruth's Journey," a lesson plan from the "Girls in Trouble" curriculum by Alicia Jo Rabins

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Ruth's Journey." (Viewed on December 14, 2017) <https://jwa.org/teach/girlsintrouble/ruths-journey>.

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