LAST week was Week of the Volunteer in Britain. Next week we in the Jewish community celebrate the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost). Seeking a connection between the two — the timely and the timeless — I found it in the text we read on the festival: the Book of Ruth.
The story of Ruth has a simple beauty that never fades. It is about two women, an Israelite, Naomi, and her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth, and the human bond between them. Naomi’s husband and sons have died. Both women are now childless widows. Naomi tells Ruth that they must part and rebuild their separate lives. Ruth refuses. She accompanies Naomi back to Israel and eventually marries another member of the family, Boaz. From that marriage, three generations later, David was born, Israel ‘s greatest king.
One Hebrew word epitomises the book: chessed, usually translated as “loving kindness”. It is what links the book’s main characters. In fact, it added a word to the English language. In Middle English, “ruth” meant kindness. Today only its negation remains: the word “ruthless”. But the story has immense power. Childless widows were the most vulnerable, defenceless members of ancient societies. In addition, Ruth and Naomi were divided by ethnicity. The Israelites and Moabites were longstanding enemies. They had nothing in common but mutual distrust. Whenever I read the book, the words that come to mind are the famous phrase of Tennessee Williams: “The kindness of strangers.” Ruth is about the simple gestures that transcend differences, the universal language of help to those in need.
Its message still stands. Shavuot is when we celebrate the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. The fact that we read Ruth’s story at this time tells us that society cannot be made by laws alone. It needs something more — the unforced, unlegislated kindness that makes us reach out to the lonely and vulnerable, even if we are lonely and vulnerable ourselves. Then and now, society needs the kindness of strangers.
That is what volunteering is — and it is part of the unsung greatness of Britain today. We are a ruthful, not a ruthless, nation; 26 million of us are engaged in some form of voluntary work. Another 11 million describe themselves as “waiting to be asked”. The numbers continue to rise, especially among the young.
We saw this in the outpouring of generosity that followed the tsunami tragedy last year. It is evident again in the Make Poverty History campaign. We care. We want to give. We seek to help. We are not just concatenations of selfish genes. Like Ruth and Boaz, we find ourselves stretching out a hand to the stranger. Kindness, compassion, chessed, lie at the core of our humanity. They represent the strange, unexpected truth that by sharing our vulnerabilities, we discover strength.
The paradox of volunteering is that the more we give, the more we are given. I lose count of the number of times I have thanked people for their voluntary work, only to be told: “It is I who want to give thanks for the chance to serve.” Lifting others, we ourselves are lifted. Happiness — the sense of a life well lived — is born in the blessings we bestow on others. Bringing hope to someone else’s life brings meaning to our own.
I find it moving that the Bible dedicates a book to the story of David’s great-grandmother Ruth, as if to say that her life was no less significant than his. She was a stranger, an outsider, someone with nothing but her own force of character, her refusal to walk away from another person’s troubles. David was a military hero, a master politician, a king. There is a form of greatness, suggests the Bible, that has nothing to do with power, fame or renown. It exists in simple deeds of kindness and friendship, generosity and grace. Rarely do they make the news. But they change lives, redeeming some of the pain of the human situation.
Britain’s volunteers are our Ruths. Each is writing their own sequel to her story. Volunteering is rarely glamorous and never easy, especially for those with many other pressures on their time. But few things count more when it comes to looking back on a life than being able to say, I made a difference. Beneath the clamour of self-interest, a quieter voice within us whispers the deeper truth, that the greatest gift is to be able to give.
(First published in The Times)