Among the customs that accompany the holiday of Shavuot, the public reading of the book of Ruth is personally one of my favorites. The beauty and simplicity of language, the conciseness and majesty of its narrative and the great moral lessons that are embedded in its four short chapters have always fascinated me. There is much that we and our current society can learn and apply from the ideas and events described in the book of Ruth.
Firstly and perhaps most importantly is the value that Judaism places upon compassion and help to the widow, the orphan, the stranger – the disadvantaged in our society. The great future of the Jewish people, even of all Western civilization, is founded on acts of compassion – Ruth to Naomi, Naomi to Ruth, and Boaz to Ruth. There are no great intellectual or theological discussions related to us in the book of Ruth. It is deceptively simple in its shining message that we are to be nice to each other.
We are here to help others and such help oftentimes comes not in grandiose social welfare programs or numerous organizations but rather in small personal acts of kindness and sensitivity towards others.` The Davidic dynasty is created by giving a tired, poor and strange woman a rather meager lunch and some comforting words.
The book of Ruth purposely details for us the “menu” that Boaz offered Ruth for her midday meal in order to emphasize to us that true human kindness rests in the small things in life and the everyday accommodations to others that sustain us in an otherwise difficult world.
The attitude towards the stranger amongst us is also one of the highlights of the book of Ruth. Human beings are very territorial and xenophobic. We look askance at strangers, at those who are not like us physically and temperamentally. In our schools the “different” child is rarely if ever accommodated. Bullying and violence are condoned if not even sometimes encouraged.
The Jewish people over the ages have been victimized simply for being different. No amount of Nobel prizes won can erase the fact that we are different and the refusal of most of human society to tolerate differences within the human race inevitability leads to outrage and atrocities.
The gleaners and the harvesters and their supervisors all looked askance at Ruth – the different one – as she bent down to take the fallen grain. They identified her to Boaz and to themselves as, that ”Moabite” person. It was not only meant as a term of description but rather as one of derision as well. The different person always bears the stigma of being different.
The Torah warned us thirty six times to be careful to treat the stranger, the convert, the different one, fairly and with justice and compassion. We are taught that “the world is constructed and built upon compassion towards others.” The book of Ruth perhaps more than any other book in the canon of the Bible illustrates this value in a most emphatic fashion.
The book of Ruth also drives home to us the unseen but omnipresent hand of God, so to speak, in the seemingly ordinary affairs of humans. Though we are all accorded almost unlimited free will in our choices, decisions and behavior, we are yet operating within boundaries of events that are subject to the Will of the Divine.
Boaz is free to choose how he will treat Ruth, kindly or otherwise, but as Rambam explains, this freedom in no way impinges on God’s ultimate master plan for the Jewish people and the Davidic dynasty. “Many are the thoughts of humans but it is God’s plan that will ultimately prevail.” We should always operate as agents of our own freedom of will and choice while at the same time being mindful that it is God’s plan that will certainly prevail.
King David need not have arrived through Boaz and Ruth. The Lord has many paths to effectuate His will. Yet because of the compassionate behavior of Boaz and Ruth, the Lord made them the eternal parents of Jewish monarchy. This is a confirmation of the statement of the rabbis of the Talmud: “Good and meritorious events occur to us through the acts of good and meritorious people while other types of events occur to us through the behavior of sinners.” These lessons from the book of Ruth should be guideposts for us all year long - not limited to the holiday of Shavuot itself.