A Most Beautiful Passage

“Do not urge me to leave you.
Wherever you go, I will go;
wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
your God, my God.”

This is one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, or anywhere. It is said by Ruth to Naomi, her mother-in-law. The heartbreaking situation is that Ruth’s husband, Naomi’s son, died, as did Naomi’s husband and her other son. Naomi is a Jewish woman who had lived in the foreign land of Moab with her family, but now half the family has passed away, and Naomi is going to return to her home in Israel. She tells Ruth to stay in Moab, her home, and marry a nice Moabite guy. Ruth has every right to do this. None of us would begrudge Ruth if she walks away.

But this is not the path that Ruth chooses. Instead, this is when Ruth says those beautiful words to Naomi, and she lives up to them. She goes to Israel, to what is to her a foreign land where she will be an alien and a stranger.

The power of Ruth’s words is not only in their poetic beauty nor even in that she becomes the paradigm for all of us who choose to convert to Judaism. Ruth’s words and deeds capture the human imagination because she does something that does not come naturally to humans. Granted freedom, she chooses responsibility. Given autonomy, she chooses commitment. Given the opportunity to put herself first, she does just the opposite – putting duty to another human being above all else. Ruth stands as a powerful commentary on the human condition. Her story is the story of a person, and people, forging community by elevating their concerns for each other over their individual concerns, the quiet heroism of forgoing aspects of their own freedom in order to maintain and sustain the needs of the people as a whole.

All of which is why, I believe, we read the book of Ruth on the festival of Shavuot, which we will celebrate this month. The story of Ruth, the story of Shavuot, is that community is neither formed nor sustained by way of liberty alone. Our rights and freedoms are made acceptable, made meaningful, and made sacred only insofar as they are expressed in dialogue with the needs of the wider community of individuals with whom we live.

You may or may not know the story of Ruth, and you may or may not know much about the festival of Shavuot, but if there has ever been a moment in which we must speak openly about negotiating our rights and freedoms as individuals with the duties that we have to the community in which we live, then this is that moment.

Take nearly any issue on the public docket, including the right to protest, even when you don’t know what you’re talking about and are saying ignorant and hateful things.

We must live by doing a balancing act between the libertarian impulse to do as we please and the knowledge that the well-being of the community depends on establishing safeguards to those very liberties.

Think about the First Amendment. Most of us would identify free speech as a fundamental right, and yet we would all concede that that right does not grant us permission to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Many of the issues in our country spring from the tension between our individual freedoms and our obligations to one another.

It was John Stuart Mill, the father of libertarianism, who coined what he called “The Harm Principle,” meaning that while individuals may be free do as they please, they can do so only insofar as their actions do not cause harm to other individuals. We have the right to drive, but that right comes with a requirement to be licensed, and to stop at stoplights. Doctors have the right to prescribe narcotics, but that right comes only with proper training, licensing, and protection against the abuse of that right. As individuals, we may have all sorts of rights and freedoms. As a community of imperfect humans – as fellow citizens of a nation – we coexist only because those freedoms are governed by agreed-upon statutes and laws. As either Madison or Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 51:

“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

It is not either/or. There are freedoms well worth establishing and defending, and there are protections, limitations, and safeguards – sometimes self-imposed, sometimes imposed by others – worthy of the same defense.

The great sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai tells the parable of a group of people travelling in a boat. One passenger begins to drill a hole beneath his seat.

“Why are you doing this?” asks a fellow traveler.

“Do not concern yourself,” the first man replies. “I am only drilling under my seat.”

“Maybe so,” the second passenger responds, “but when the water enters – we will all drown.”

Judaism demands that private desire yield to public good. Our tradition knows that for civil society to be upheld, we must allow that society to make claims upon us. Our tradition believes that expressions of obligation toward other individuals and the community at large are not infringements on our freedom but rather the greatest expressions of our freedom.

Not just on Shavuot, but year-round, our tradition urges us to leverage our freedoms toward building a society in which we freely accept our obligations one to another. Liberty without limits is not a freedom that can or should be preserved. If we keep punching holes beneath our seats, this ship will sink. Like the hero of the season – Ruth – may our pledges to ourselves and each other reflect the very best of our tradition, a nation of “we the people for the people,” in which “your people shall be my people,” ever striving to form a more perfect union – by not just asserting our rights but living up to our obligations.