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But happiness is not enough

Faithfulness and redemption/10 - There are second choices that follow a first choice, which we make thanks to agape

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  05/06/2021

So why do I increase the unhappiness of being on this shore with my nostalgia for the other shore?
Franz Kafka, Diaries, January 24, 1922

With the nocturnal meeting between Ruth and Boaz, some new aspects of what faithfulness is open up to us. And of the Law of Women, which has a lot to tell us and which tends not to separate goods from people, wealth from life

It is not easy to understand where beauty lies in the Bible, and what it really constitues. Rebecca, Rachel, Judith, Bathsheba, Esther and Tamar were beautiful, very beautiful; perhaps the Queen of Sheba was beautiful too. "How beautiful" was the girl from the Song of Salomon, 4,7. Joseph and David were beautiful, and so was Moses the child, Saul was very beautiful indeed, as was Absalom, the prince with the splendid hair: «In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him» (2 The Book of Samuel 14,25). Together with this kind of beauty that resembles ours, however, the Bible also contains another form of beauty, thereby revealing an aspect of life that perhaps is decisive to us. The kind that makes us call a shepherd beautiful (kalos) (John 10,11), makes us praise "how beautiful" Mary is, and makes us see a different kind of beauty even in a crucifix that would not have «beauty to attract us» (Isaiah 53,2).

Ruth is not described as being beautiful, yet throughout her book, Ruth is constantly accompanied by intense beauty. Nobody really says she is beautiful, yet everyone says it. She was no longer very young (she was a widow, married perhaps for 10 years), yet for over two millennia we have imagined Ruth as being young and beautiful. If the only true beauty on earth was that of Bathsheba and Tamar we would be condemned to live in a world with very few beautiful people and very little beauty. And to some, perhaps many, the world really looks like this. This, however, is not the only gaze that we have been given. Every day, every minute, people fall in love with other people because they see a different kind of beauty. We can try to look at the world through the billions of eyes of lovers, discovering a different world, and a different kind of beauty, as well. Those who love see differently. They see their beloved or loved one as an incredibly beautiful person. The world seen through the slits of loving eyes is turned upside down, populated by splendid people, one more beautiful than the other, a kind of beauty that changes with age and circumstances, but remains beautiful; until the end, when that last gaze will have the same sparkle in the eyes of the first meeting, perhaps even more so. Could it be that this is how God sees the world? Does he see us, you, me like this? His is the "look of the last resort" for those who have no lover or no mother or father who can see their beauty. When beauty vanishes and disappears, we should try our hand at this different kind of gesture of our eyes.

«“I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered. So she went down to the threshing floor and did everything her mother-in-law told her to do» (The Book of Ruth 3,5-6). Naomi had orchestrated her plan to secure a "safe place" for her daughter-in-law. And so, wearing perfume and a beautiful dress, Ruth waits for the threshing festival to end and finds the heap of barley where the man was lying: «When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down» (The Book of Ruth 3,7). Ruth follows the instructions of her mother-in-law to perfection, and lies down in the bed of a man who is not her husband, under the same blanket, by his "feet". We can imagine her there, tense and frightened, not daring to close her eyes, waiting for something to happen, hoping that no stranger will come up and ruin the plan. With thousands of thoughts, all in the same vein: what will happen when he wakes up? What if he chases me away? What if he humiliates me, offends me? Will he be violent? And then, what will he think of me? The same questions as always, especially when these initiatives are taken by women, fragile, defenceless and weak.

The minutes become hours, and never seem to pass: «During the night he woke up suddenly, turned over, and was surprised to find a woman lying at his feet. “Who are you?” he asked» (The Book of Ruth 3,8-9). The Middle Eastern night in that farmyard was cold. Perhaps the blanket (or cloak) was too short; perhaps while moving around he accidentally touched Ruth's body, «and Boaz began to touch her hair. He said to himself: Spirits have no hair; so he asked her: Who are you, a woman or a spirit? She replied: A woman» (Midrash Rabbah, 6.1). Their dialogue continued: «“I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer [goèl] of our family”» (The Book of Ruth 3,9). Ruth reveals herself, and presents herself as "his servant" (’amah), a condition that allowed a woman to also become a concubine or a wife - polygamy was allowed in Israel. Furthermore, she asks him to be her goèl-redeemer and to marry her. Garments or wings, used in plural, indicate protection, generally by God; but when "garment" is used in the singular (kanap) it is an offer of marriage, and «spreading the corner of your garment over someone» means to marry her (Ezekiel 16,8).

With her request here, Ruth goes beyond the obligations of redemption of the Goèl provided for by the Law of Moses, reaching the obligation of Levirate marriage, that other institution that called for the obligation of a brother-in-law to marry his brother’s widow. Hence, an improper request according to the Law, also because the female member of Boaz’s family who could perhaps have requested to apply the law of levirate marriage was Naomi, not Ruth, who in addition was also a foreigner. It is clear that Ruth transgresses the Law. And this transgression tells us something very important.

Ruth does something that is not foreseen by the Law of men, of males. They had in fact separated and distinguished the Goèl from Levirate marriage, effectively separating the redemption of economic goods from the redemption of people, separating wealth from life. And we continue to do so to this day. But not Ruth. All goods are relational to her. The only true law that matters is the one that will ensure that life can continue, that goods do not end up scattered and dispersed, sure, but more importantly, that life does not end up dispersed. May there be new children, because in the Bible, children are the real paradise, and a newborn child can always be the Messiah. Men tend to separate things from human relationships, women do not. We still continue seeing this every day: expensive gifts to replace the time for talking that there never seems to be room for, money and "alimony" (an utterly sad word) which according to the law of men should compensate for what is impossible to compensate. These are the words of lawyers, the ones we turn to when we have killed the words we should have said but did not utter. The redemption of goods without the redemption of primary relationships only serves to redeem dead things. Women are very aware of this, us males a bit less so. Ruth also includes Naomi into her salvation/redemption - marrying Boaz means giving Naomi, who does not have one, an heir. She cannot conceive a salvation that is only for herself. Happiness is not enough. We all know this; we all learn it over the years. However, women above all know this and in a different way. In order for happiness to be "enough" (without ever becoming everything) it should at least include the happiness of those whom women love, which often weighs more than their own happiness, sometimes even too much. This excessive weight given to the happiness of others is what often generates the typical tragic suffering of the women on earth, it was true back then as well as today, perhaps it has always been so. What would the laws and the Law have been like if women had written them, if mothers had written them? And what about economics and the science of management if women like Ruth were the ones who developed and taught them? They would certainly have been different, perhaps very different.

And so, within this partial, collective and different form of happiness, Ruth asks to marry a grown man, probably rather old, perhaps already married, closer to Naomi's age than hers (even the Hebrew vocabulary she uses suggests it: according to the Midrash Rabbah, Boaz is eighty years old and recently widowed (Midrash Rabbah 6.2). Boaz points out the particular choice that Ruth has made: «“The Lord bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness [hesed] is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor"» (The Book of Ruth 3,10).

Ruth could have looked for and found a young, perhaps even a rich man - this is also an indirect recognition of Ruth's beauty and charm. She, however, chooses Boaz. She does so out of faithfulness to that first choice of remaining "attached" to Naomi, of following a voice, an entirely human vocation. These are choices that we see every day, which at times may seem strange to us, but that instead are part of the particular repertoire of women, who possess a more vital and affective kind of rationality, where different costs and benefits enter into the cost-benefit calculation, sometimes without calculating at all. They also have a different relationship with time, perhaps because they carry the natural rhythm of the cosmos inscribed into their bodies, and because they know that nine months are worth an entire lifetime, and that certain pains are forever, as are certain love stories. Hence, sometimes they feel that it is worth more to love one person very much, if even for a short time, than to love many people for a long time. And so they make their choice.

«This kindness [hesed] is greater than that which you showed earlier» – Boaz says to Ruth. The second choice that Ruth is now making is a consequence of her first choice, that of following Naomi "forever". As in our vocations, as in life, where our choices today are necessary acts in order to remain faithful to a freedom radically exercised yesterday. Boaz's words tell us that these second choices, which tend to appear in our lives and which in a certain sense are less free, prevail over the first ones. Why? How do they prevail? We had left everything behind to follow a voice, in our youth. We left "wife, fields, children" behind without really having a wife, fields or children. Then we take off, we walk and one grown-up day we meet a real, concrete woman who could become a wife, and therefore fields, and children. In that first choice, we said "forever" with absolute freedom, because in that moment everything was still possible, but the second choice of not "stopping" is less free than the first one because it was potentially already included in it, as that first choice already reduced our set of possible alternatives. Now, however, the choice is concrete, the first one was merely abstract.

We could call this second freedom a new kind of freedom, but we can also call it agape, the twin word of the Hebrew word hesed. The second choice prevails in agape. We are greater than our own happiness and freedom, and therefore we can decide to place them in the background to make room for something else that is worth more: the truth of our heart. Here lies the tragic aspect of true vocations, which constitute a maximum amount of freedom and a maximum amount of non-freedom, at the same time. The "forevers" that are freely pronounced remain forever, and act forever. Three things remain. The greatest one of all is agape.

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