Deconstructing Essence of Choice



For those of us outside of Israel, there is no "portion of the week" this coming Sabbath. The two-day holiday of Shavuot falls on Friday and Saturday, and pre-empts the regular reading. Instead, I will devote this column to the book of Ruth, which is heard at shul this week.

There is hardly an example of human tragedy that is not a part of Ruth's story. Famine, exile, bereavement, widowhood, loneliness and poverty all occur to Naomi and Ruth. But there is one aspect of human life, not at all a tragic one, which I think is the central theme of the story.

I refer to the act of personal choice, of making a decision. For me, choice defines the human condition.

It has been claimed that what makes human distinct is our capacity to think and speak. Others maintain that it is our ability to use tools. But if the popular existentialist movement taught us anything, it's that we are creatures who choose.

Ruth is a perfect example of someone who faced the choices in her life and made some very painful ones. They turned out to be part of her heroic destiny, and proved to be of singular importance to the Jewish people and to all humanity.

Rabbinic legend tells us that Ruth and her sister-in-law, Orpah, were Moabite princesses. They could have married anyone in their society, but they bucked the tide and married members of the minority in their land. They exercised choice — and that begins the story.

Their husbands, Machlon and Kilyon, then died, forcing yet another crucial life decision. Would they remarry? Would they now conform to their peers and wed Moabite men, or would they continue to irrationally seek Jewish mates, even if that meant choosing to leave their homeland?

It has been said that all important decisions are made on the basis of insufficient data. Of course, this is true, because when there is truly adequate information, choices are obvious and apparent, and the decision-making process is of little consequence.

But if this is true, then all heroic decisions are made on the basis of contrary data. The realistic data that lay before Ruth and Orpah certainly would have justified very different choices for them. The data would argue, "stay home." Do not marry a stranger, and certainly do not enter voluntary exile in the attempt to find a mate equal to your first love in a distant and alien environment.

This was essentially Naomi's argument to both women. She urged them to consider the data and to make "realistic" choices.

Orpah initially continued with her choice. But then, her rational, practical nature understandably prevailed. She returned home.

Ruth, on the other hand, persisted. And she chose, consciously and courageously, another nation, another people and another god. What a dazzling, truly unpredictable decision!

Moment by moment, each of us faces a range of options and choices. We struggle to base our decisions upon sufficient data, although disappointingly, such data is usually not forthcoming.

The lesson of Ruth — the person and the book — is that such choices, guided by intuition and inspiration, if not by certainty and information, result in significance to the person, and can determine the course of history: Ruth was the ancestress of King David.

Like the poet Robert Frost, we may look back with regret at "the road not taken," but alternatively, we may find that the "less traveled road" is the most meaningful one of all.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.


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