The Book of Ruth

Last Sunday our local Hadassah chapter invited me to talk about the book I’m working on tentatively entitled: “White Fire: Women Spiritual Leaders.” I was so inspired by the women of my research and the women who attended the luncheon that the minute I sat down to think about what I wanted to say about Shavuot, one word jumped off the page: Ruth! If she were alive, I’d do anything to get an interview with her, because if ever there were a woman who qualifies as a spiritual leader, it is she. The Book of Ruth is read at Shavuot because its narrative takes place during the harvest and the late spring holiday celebrates the first harvest, which is why Shavuot is also known as Hag HaBikkurim, Festival of first fruits. Ruth is also linked to Shavuot, the day we celebrate as The Giving of the Ten Commandments, because she was also given Torah when she chose the Jewish people to be her people. It is a story of greatest girl power, where compassion flows like milk and redeems the world. In this book, compassion is stronger than violence. No war wins the victory, only lovingkindness, hesed. A story that begins with famine and heartbreak ends in romance and a baby who will be linked to King David.

Before we get into the story itself, a word about the book. The Megilat Ruth, the Scroll of Ruth, is one of five books, originally scrolls, that are read during the holidays. The best known scroll is also named for a woman, the Book of Esther. The Book of Ruth is beloved by both Christians and Jews because its purpose is, as the tradition says, “To teach how great is kindness.” Its other name is the Book of Lovingkindness. Its story is brief and simply told:

In the days of the Judges, Elimelech, a wealthy farmer, took his wife, Naomi, and their sons from Bethlehem because of famine. When they reached Moab, first Elimelech died, and then Machlon and Chilion, their children. The sons left Orpah and Ruth, who were Moabite women, widows without children. Desperate and despairing, Naomi decides to return to her hometown, Bethlehem. Both daughters-in-law plead to go with her, but in the end Orpah returned and only Ruth accompanied Naomi after speaking these words: ‘Entreat me not to leave you, and to return from following after you; for where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; the people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried; Adonai do so to me, and more also, if anything but death part you and me.’

While these words have melted hearts for millenia, Naomi’s is too broken to heal. When the two women approach Bethlehem and are greeted by the women who ask, “Is this Naomi?” she replies, “Don’t call me Naomi, call me Marah,” which means bitterness. She remembers leaving Bethlehem a wealthy married woman with two sons, and now she returns empty. She asks why should she be called Naomi, because her name means sweetness.

It is the beginning of harvest time in Bethlehem and Ruth took advantage of the Jewish custom that allowed the poor to glean the fallen barley. The field she happened to choose belonged to Boaz, a prosperous relative of her late husband. When he realizes who she is and hears of her kindness to her mother-in-law, he shows her kindness by protecting her and feeding her in his fields. Boaz, whose name means “in his strength” is an old man; he consents to marry Ruth which will allow her to redeem her late husband’s land. The book ends joyfully with the birth of Oved. Naomi’s friends say to her, “Blessed be Adonai, who has not left you this day without near kin, and let his name be famous in Israel. And he shall be unto you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” So the descent of the great warrior king and poet, David, is traced back to his Moabite great grandmother, Ruth.

The Book of Ruth is a story that begins with famine. But why did Elimelech, a wealthy man, need to leave Bethlehem? The rabbis say that he wanted to leave because he didn’t want his needy neighbors to come to him for food. It is for his selfishness that he and his sons died. Now the name, Ruth, means neighbor, and it is this woman, a widow, whose generosity of loyalty and neighborliness brings the story from hunger to plenty. This is the story of those who walked the road of hardship, two widows who symbolize all that is poor and weak, and it is this road one must walk to attain Torah. Ruth is the counterpoint to the revelation of Torah. Torah is only the gateway that leads to the opening of the heart. It is the Torah of Hesed, lovingkindness, that the Book of Ruth represents. Both Boaz and Ruth are Torah because of their deeds.

God plays no part in this narrative, except that God has given us the blueprint for a good life with the Torah. It is the kindness of the heroes of the Book of Ruth who manifest Torah on earth through their deeds. Behavior is contagious, and from Boaz and Ruth we learn that if animosity breeds animosity, then lovingkindness breeds lovingkindness. It is not only manifested between human beings, it also brings forth God’s kindness to us when we are kind to each other. The birth of a child represents God’s love for us.

I began by talking about women spiritual leaders. Leadership is not passive; it requires decision and action. Most of our texts demonstrate this through accounts of war. The Book of Ruth gives us another model. Here we find compassion and lovingkindness not as receptive, passive behaviors but as agents of change. Ruth and Boaz, our models of kindness, reveal that this is not a gender-specific behavior. Together they give birth to a child who will one day be king. They hold the promise of a sovereignty that will reign not with blood and swords but with hesed. Lovingkindness is not love; it is behaving as if we love, especially when we don’t. It’s easy to do wonderful things for each other when we feel affection. The challenge is to behave kindly to the stranger or to the one with whom we have disagreement. May we, the children of Ruth and Boaz, take their lesson to our own hearts this Shavuot and reach for lovingkindness with each other and in so doing feel God’s presence between us.