Shavuot—the festival of revelation: Mount Sinai trembles, thunder and lightning sunder the skies, the rocky crests of a barren desert suddenly burst into verdant bloom. The unstoppable, all-powerful Voice of the Holy One shatters the silence . . . and a few million once-wretched refugees, yesterday kvetching and quarreling, today stand together as one nation with one heart to embrace the essence of truth, to receive timeless wisdom—the Commandments, the quintessence of divine law.

And how do we, some thirty-three centuries later, commemorate and recreate this awesome experience? Customs range from the sublime (the reading of the Ten Commandments) to the sumptuous (cheesecake!). But one Shavuot custom stands out as rather incongruous. Among all the books of the Torah, the one we read in its entirety on Shavuot (in many communities it’s read from a scroll in the synagogue) is a seemingly minor tale of a couple of Moabite widows and their Jewish mother-in-law.

Can two women love the same man and live in peace?Why read Megillat Ruth? Some say it is because Ruth was the mother of royalty, the great-grandmother of King David. Others say it’s because Ruth was the first official convert to the Jewish faith, blazing the trail for all of us toward radical self-transformation. But as I contemplate the story of Ruth, I wonder whether its inner relevance might also stem from the quality of the core relationship it portrays. Because Ruth is a rare narrative indeed—it is the saga of a mother-in-law, Naomi, and a daughter-in-law, Ruth, and their implausibly positive emotional bond. As such, it presents us an incredible opportunity to re-examine this often-ridiculed love-hate relationship between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law (let’s call them MIL/DIL for short), and turn it around.

“Why were Adam and Eve the happiest couple in the history of the world? Because neither one of them had a mother-in-law.”

Mother-in-law jokes are a mainstay of comedy. Most of these jokes play on the stereotype that the average mother-in-law is overbearing, obnoxious, and probably unattractive to boot—and most significantly, that the old battle-axe considers her daughter-in-law to be totally unworthy of her son.

A man meets a wonderful woman and they get engaged; he calls his mother to share the good news. He arranges to have dinner with his mom so she can meet his fiancée. He arrives at her home with not one, but three women—a blonde, a brunette and a redhead. “Why three women?” asks Mom. He replies that he wants to see if she can guess which of the women is her future daughter-in-law. She looks at each one carefully, then says, “It’s the redhead.” “How could you possibly have figured that out so quickly?” he inquires. “Simple,” she replies icily. “Because I can’t stand her.”

Unfortunately—one might even say tragically—the world at large has ceased to understand the value of extended family. This is particularly true of the MIL/DIL relationship. (In my research, I found several “I hate my mother-in-law” websites!) “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we tell ourselves. “Judge everyone favorably, give the benefit of the doubt.” Yet when it comes to those sticky, awkward, hypersensitive MIL/DIL moments, there seems to be much more doubt than benefit, and not quite enough love to go around. Daughters-in-law are rarely comfortable enough to engage in open communication with their mothers-in-law, let alone accept their well-considered advice; and conversely, mothers-in-law, convinced it’s for the good of the family, too easily intervene with unwelcome criticism, utterly blind to the resistance and the resentment it engenders. Discomfort turns to judgmentalness, which before long gives way to paranoia, and the MIL/DIL syndrome is in full flower.

Can two women love the same man and live in peace? If the MIL/DIL relationship could work with a minimum of hang-ups and negativity, these two lucky ladies would have worlds to offer each other. A mother-in-law ought to appreciate and honor the woman who will care for her son’s spiritual, physical and emotional needs for the rest of his life. She needs to train herself to look at her daughter-in-law with the “good eye” described in Ethics of the Fathers—seeing the good in her, accentuating the positive, dropping the judgment. And a daughter-in-law should try to value and welcome her mother-in-law’s wisdom, concern and in-the-trenches experience with the man they both love. It’s helpful to remember that our intrinsic worth is not determined by other people’s opinions. Perhaps in that light, defensiveness can take a back seat to true personal growth.

Two mothers appear before King Solomon, the wisest of men, each claiming that a certain young man has pledged his troth to her daughter. King Solomon decides: cut the man in half, and they’ll share him. “Oh no!” says one woman. “Please, let him live!”

“No problem,” says the other. “Cut him in half!”

“Aha!” exclaims the king. “The second one is the true mother-in-law!”

In education, it’s called professionalism: third-grade teachers end a school year by meeting with the fourth-grade teachers, filling them in on the strengths and weaknesses of their future students. In business transactions, it’s called common sense: an educated consumer buys a used car, and solicits the advice of the previous owner to determine the vehicle’s quirks and what it needs to be well maintained. When a woman leaves her home to join her husband’s “tribe,” who is the wise woman who can best enhance this bride’s understanding of his traditions and his ways? And what relationship has greater potential for transmitting sound Torah values from one generation to the next? Perhaps your husband has some quirks that you haven’t figured out; maybe your mother-in-law could fill in the missing links in his maintenance record.

Are they ready for the internal work it takes to transform a persistent sense of uneasiness into continuity, loyalty and love?By the same token, it’s possible that his wife has a few insights to offer that the woman who nurtured and protected him throughout his vulnerable, formative years may have missed.

Yet how often do the MIL and DIL create opportunities to optimize the transition, to bond in a way that will establish peace—shalom—in their everlasting edifice? Are they ready for the internal work it takes to transform a persistent sense of uneasiness into continuity, loyalty and love? Take walks in the park together. Do lunch, just the two of you. Listen, and learn.

Twice widowed, uncertain of her future, Ruth might easily have reverted to her old comfort zone and left Naomi—as in fact her Moabite sister-in law had done. But her devotion to her husband’s familial and tribal lineage is unshakable; and she recognizes in her mother-in-law a quality of kindness and grace that wins her undying loyalty. “Wherever you go, I will go,” she proclaims. “Wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G‑d, my G‑d.” Our heroine goes so far as to defer completely to Naomi in the raising and education of their children/grandchildren. Now, I’m not suggesting here that we follow their example literally; but let’s look between the lines at the quality of their relationship and take that to heart.

MILs and DILs have so much in common. They both want only the best for their guy, and for his kids—happiness, good health, positive communication, financial and physical wellbeing, a sense of belonging, purpose, integrity and continuity. We want shalom—which means more than peace; it means completeness. When we are complete, we are whole, we are one. There is no perceptible place where you end and your mother-in-law begins. You are united in purpose, and life becomes a banquet, filled with a sense of abundance rather than a sense of “mine-ness,” where no one is wondering if there is enough food. The hall is filled with music and laughter; there is no centering attention on oneself. We are bound by One-ness, and we represent the momentum of generations of souls united in a single purpose—making this world a better place, a holy place.

Practically speaking, we need tools. Here’s one; I call it the Q-TIP, as in Quit Taking It Personally. If MIL says something that feels like criticism, take the stinger out of it and look at it as a positive suggestion. If DIL is too busy with little ones, school meetings or housework to invite you into her life, replace the irritation at having been slighted with a positive resolve to help her have more free time. Offer to do one of her carpools, perhaps, or slip her a few twenties for extra cleaning help. And in those inevitable moments when helpful suggestions or offers of time, service, experience, an extra set of hands, or even money are met with resistance, let it go. From a broader perspective than that of our own personal agendas, your MIL or DIL is precisely as she “should” be. As is your spouse, or your child or grandchild. In the consciousness of releasing our tenacious grip on our own personal territory, our script, our control, our point of view, we grow more whole. We become adept at loving all family members for who they are; and they—we—are freed to become all we are capable of being.