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The Bible: Wisdom Literature

Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Humorous Chelm stories. Mystical Golem legends. Inspirational Chasidic tales. Folklore is part of the rich oral and written literary tradition in nearly every culture, Judaism included.

“Every major historical and cultural period of Jewish history has created folk tales, inherited folk tales from previous periods, and transmitted them to the following one,” writes folklorist Eli Yassif.

Even the Bible is filled with such stories: Balaam’s talking donkey, Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal, King David’s seduction of Bathsheba.

Added to that collection are biblically-inspired rabbinic midrash, King Solomon legends, and Elijah tales.

Whether fact or fiction, these stories are so powerful and long-lived because they reveal “an ancient, deep, magical wisdom,” asserts storyteller Dr. Sharon Blackie.

They are “embedded with instructions which guide us through the complexities of life and show us what we may become, or how we may participate in the becoming of the world.”

Candace R. Kwiatek
Candace R. Kwiatek

An example of a stand-alone biblical folk tale, Rabbi Jack Sasson notes, is that of Ruth.

Set in the turbulent era of the judges, its four chapters trace the rocky tale of Ruth from Moabite to Israelite to ancestor of King David.

Interpretations are varied, Rabbi Rifat Sonsino explains, from advocacy for the inclusion of outsiders, to the establishment of King David’s genealogy, to cultivation of gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness.

Perhaps the genius of Ruth is that it doesn’t reflect just a single message.

“No matter your age or season of life, there is wisdom to learn from the lessons that unfold,” observes online religion writer Mandy Smith.

What might we glean from the story of Ruth?

1. Stage one thinking
“And it came to pass in the days when the judges judged, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the field of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons (Ruth 1:1).”

Faced with a crisis in the Promised Land, an Israelite abandons his homeland and God and moves his family to enemy territory.

There he dies, his sons marry Moabites, and they too die leaving the women childless and unprotected widows. The man’s choice is all about expediency, not what is virtuous or wise. It’s a prime example of stage one thinking: he ignores his identity and opts for immediate results without exploring what will happen in the long run. What is expedient in the short term is often a bad long-term choice.

2. God gone quiet
“Call me not Naomi, call me Marah (Bitterness), because the Almighty has dealt quite bitterly with me (Ruth 1:20).”

“In many ways, Naomi’s confusion reflects (that) of Israel in the period of the judges,” write Andrew Wilson and Alastair Roberts, authors of the book Echoes of Exodus.

Israel has survived the wilderness and entered the Promised Land, but it is not the peaceful, hospitable land flowing with milk and honey they had imagined.

Instead they are plagued by invasions, famine, apostasy, civil war.

“The God of the Exodus has gone quiet. Where is his mighty hand or his outstretched arm?” Wilson and Roberts ask.

Yet, “it is this lowest point of loneliness and alienation that becomes the very source of an unhoped-for beginning, and absolutely fresh start,” theologian Benoit Standaert writes. Choose life.

3. Moving forward
“And she went forth out of the place where she was… (Ruth 1:7).”

Broken and destitute in a foreign land, Naomi could only move forward by rebuilding her life in Bethlehem, encouraging her daughters-in-law to do the same by finding new husbands in Moab.

One remained, but Ruth chose instead to comfort Naomi and build a new identity as part of Israel.

As Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider notes, the Talmud teaches that “brokenness and wholeness coexist side-by-side, even in Judaism’s holiest spot.” It’s an apt metaphor for how to conduct our lives.

We have a sacred responsibility both to embrace those who live with “broken tablets” in their hearts and to seek the strength, even when broken, to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives.

4. Noble character
Ruth said, “Let me glean, I pray you, and gather after the reapers among the sheaves; so she came, and has continued even from the morning until now…(Ruth 2:7).”

Her humility and industriousness — caring for herself and her mother-in-law without complaint — didn’t go unnoticed by a foreman, who would advise Boaz.

As for him, “Boaz commanded his young men, saying: ‘Let her glean even among the sheaves, and put her not to shame (Ruth 2:15).’”

His responses to Ruth, despite her being a Moabitess, a widow, and a foreigner, reflect protection, compassion, respect, and honor.

Nor does he later take advantage of a kinsman’s right to Naomi’s land despite his interest in Ruth.

As the story’s end makes clear, they are enthusiastically honored and blessed by the community. Only in the final postscript do we learn that their son is destined to be the grandfather of King David.

Humility, industriousness, compassion, integrity, and honor are never in vain.

Perhaps the simple message of Ruth is that of a Divine plan fulfilling itself through the actions of decent people, rabbi and educator Herbert Bronstein concludes.

I think Ruth offers more immediate messages. We all face moments of decision, deal with crises of faith, harbor elements of brokenness, and fashion our own character. What we choose to do impacts others. In a very real sense, where you go, I go too.


Literature to share

The Spy Who Played Baseball by Corrie Jones. Jewish American Hall of Fame inductee Moe Berg comes to life in unexpected ways in this fascinating children’s book. Berg was not only a major league baseball player, he was also a lawyer and an intelligence officer and spy during World War II. Delightful graphic-art style images trace Berg’s early start in baseball, love of reading, learning and travel, commitment to fairness, and willingness to fight evil. There’s even a bit of mystery in this tale. An afterward offers additional information about his story. Highly recommended for all youngsters, not just baseball fans.

Unreasonable Doubts by Reyna Gentin. A blend of drama, romance, and legal suspense, Gentin’s novel is engaging and fast-paced, immediately sweeping you into the tale. It centers on a disenchanted public defender who wants just one client in whom she can believe. This desire colors her actions when a new case lands on her desk. Her job is to find a legal loophole in the first trial of a convicted felon allowing him to seek a new trial. Will justice be served? You might guess the end, but you’ll definitely want to know how the author gets there, because nothing is as obvious as it seems.

To read the complete July 2018 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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