With the holiday of Shavuot lurking joyfully just around the corner, I have spent some time reviewing the holy book of Ruth. Traditionally read in many synagogues on the holiday, the narrative quality of this book itself is masterful and its delineation of the main characters is sharp and arresting.
But it is the moral and idealistic quality of the book, especially as it is reflected through the prism of thought and interpretation of the rabbis of the Midrash and the Talmud and the latter commentators, which gives this book its transcendent relevance and importance. It is a book about family destruction and rebuilding, about loyalty to others and self-interest, about hope, faith, despair and loneliness.
It is so human in its portrayal of events and people that all who read its story are able to identify with it and aspire to incorporate its greatness into one’s own behavior. The book, authored by the prophet Samuel, speaks to each of us on an individual basis because it was meant to do so.
The great heroine of the story is Naomi, widowed, bereft of her children, poverty stricken and shunned by the community which only remembered her former privileged status, and still resents her abandoning the Land of Israel at a time of need and crisis. Through Ruth, Naomi will also be redeemed and rehabilitated and reinstated as one of the great matriarchs of the Jewish people.
The tenacity of Ruth in refusing to abandon her mother-in-law to her fate guarantees her place as the mother of Jewish royalty. Ruth arrives at greatness from outside of the camp of Israel. She is originally a pagan princess who now, through Naomi’s presence and example, finds her fate inextricably bound together with the people and God of Israel.
She takes advantage of Judaism’s openness to strangers, converts and the downtrodden and refuses to be rejected and cowed by the slights and insensitivity of individual Jews whom she encounters. She has lost her pride and arrogance and her external trappings of royalty and wealth but has gained an inner conviction and tenacity of purpose, a vision of fulfillment and hope.
But as is often the case in life, one cannot accomplish such a mission by one’s self. A partner is always needed. And the unlikely partner to this drama of Ruth’s life is Boaz, a leader in Israel, also widowed, alone and searching for his own fulfillment and immortality in Jewish life. Together, Ruth and Boaz will create the Jewish future for all eternity, even if at the moment of their marriage they are unaware of anything more than their personal needs and happiness.
Naomi apparently has a greater sense of the true import of their union and therefore when the child is born to Ruth and Boaz, the women of Bethlehem, gifted with the Godly intuition given to them by the Creator, correctly state: “A child is born unto Naomi.” It is Naomi’s vision that is the catalyst for the entire enactment of this human and national drama.
The story revolves about small details and seemingly unimportant events. The menu of a meager lunch served to a poor woman gleaner in the fields of Judah, the loyalty of a younger person to the care of an impoverished older woman, the unwillingness of an otherwise good person – his name is Tov, goodness itself – to take the risk of public disapproval or private financial loss in order to help someone else, all somehow fit into the matrix of this divine story.
The warning of the rabbis in Avot, that one should never take a small matter of Torah and kindness lightly, resonates throughout the Book of Ruth and its events. The negative personal results of abandoning the Land of Israel and its Jews are explicit in the story and in the words of all of the commentators to the book.
For good or for better the individual Jew is tied to the fate of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel as a whole. Great people were undone simply by not realizing that their own personal comfort and welfare is not always paramount to God’s wishes and the fate of the Jewish community. It will be a long and painful road back to Bethlehem for Naomi but she is aware of the mistake that was originally made and is determined, through Ruth, to correct it. That is really the sublimely great message of this holy book.