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The Secret of Ruth
By Chana Weisberg
 

Ruth Gleaning the harvest from Boaz's field. From Amit.org.

 

It is customary in many communities to read the Book of Ruth on the holiday of Shavuot since Ruth was the ancestor of King David, whose birthday falls on Shavuot. In addition, the Book of Ruth describes Ruth’s sincere devotion and self-sacrifice in joining the Jewish people and accepting the Torah, qualities which are essential for all of us to emulate in following the Torah’s path.

 

Conflicting images come to mind when we consider Ruth. We picture Ruth in all her glory, the great-grandmother of the illustrious King David, the forebear of Mashiach, the royalty to surpass all royalties. Ruth, a woman well advanced in years, sitting beside the throne of King David, the fruit of her great self-sacrifice.

 

Yet, we also ponder a very different image. Ruth, a convert stemming from the selfish and cruel nation, Moav. Ruth, the descendant of an incestuous union between Lot and his eldest daughter, after they fled from the immoral land of Sodom and were spared G‑d’s wrath.

 

Beneath these conflicting images, a deeper lesson awaits discovery. By reviewing the story of Ruth we will discover how, from her murky origins, she came to be the ancestress of the saintly Mashiach.

The Background

This unusual story begins in the famine-stricken Land of Israel during the historical period of the Judges, approximately in the Jewish year 2787 (973 BCE). The scene is a barren country, its parched fields yielding only scorched, dying grains. The people of Israel are dejected, drained of almost any hope of extracting themselves from their dismal predicament.

 

In the midst of this desolation, we are introduced to the prominent and wealthy Elimelech, and his pious wife, Naomi. Together with their two sons, Machlon and Chilion, the parents resolve to abandon their land and people in search of a better future.

 

Though they have deserted their brethren, Elimelech and Naomi cannot leave behind their people’s suffering, as one tragedy after another befalls the couple. In the neighboring land of Moav, the family loses its fortune. Elimelech dies. His sons marry the princesses of Moav, Machlon marrying Ruth, and Chilion marrying Orpa. Soon after these marriages, Machlon and then Chilion tragically die. The once esteemed Naomi is now a penniless, childless widow, a stranger in a foreign land.

 

The Return

Naomi realizes her serious mistake in forsaking the Holy Land and is determined to return. When the mourning period for her sons ends, Naomi immediately begins her long and arduous journey back to her land and her people.

Ruth and Orpa faithfully begin to accompany her, but Naomi discourages them. She urges them, instead, to return to their parents’ homes, and to the affluent palace life. Orpa agrees, exchanging her failing, elderly mother-in-law for a new and hopeful future back with her own people.

Ruth, however, remains impervious to all of Naomi’s persuasions. She is determined to share a common destiny with Naomi whatever the future holds. In her famous heroic words, Ruth declares: “Wherever you will go, I will go. Where you will lodge, I will lodge. Your people are my people. Your G‑d is my G‑d. Where you die, I will die” (Ruth 1:16-17).

What a profound commitment Ruth is making. After living as the wife of Machlon, Ruth has tasted Judaism and identifies it as a true way of life. Her youth as a gentile princess seems to her a life devoid of values. Ruth has a monumental goal ahead of her. She obstinately clings to this objective and stands by it with every fiber of her being. Nothing, not even her own mother-in-law’s urgings, can persuade her to relinquish what she adamantly believes to be a life of truth.

Ruth possesses the strength of character to follow what her spiritual intuition believes essential, regardless of the personal outcome. She was severing all ties with her past world in order to accompany a destitute, withered woman in her journey to her nation and her people. And yet, those very people may well reject her and her mother-in-law. She is trading a life of certain opulence and prestige for a life of possible poverty and disgrace. Yet she understands the Jewish way to be the path of truth and remains steadfast in her convictions.

Ruth’s monumental decision, however, involved more than a materialistic sacrifice alone. 

Moabite Converts

After the Jewish people had left Egypt and were traveling towards the land of Israel, they asked various nations for permission to pass through their lands and to purchase food and drink. Many nations were sympathetic and graciously consented. The nations of Ammon and Moav, however, responded cruelly and maliciously, forbidding the Jews to even pass through. Because of this complete lack of compassion, G‑d forbade any Jew to marry a convert from these two nations.

 

Most people understood this law as applying to a male or female Moabite convert. Only the learned scholars grasped the implications of the Biblical restrictive “Lo yavo Amoni u’Moavi bikhal Hashem”—“An Ammonite or Moabite may not enter the congregation of G‑d” (Deut. 23:5) as referring exclusively to a male Ammonite or Moabite convert while permitting a female Ammonite or Moabite convert. Only in later generations (in the period of King David) was this rule clarified to the masses: that it was permitted to marry a female Moabite convert.

 

With this information, we can appreciate that when Ruth chose to accompany Naomi to a Jewish destiny, she was surrendering not only her Moabite past, but, she assumed, her Jewish future as well. The masses (and possibly Ruth, herself) believed that a Jewish man was forbidden to marry Ruth because she was a Moabite convert. Ruth’s accompaniment of Naomi showed utter self-sacrifice; she would become a social outcast from the very nation that she sacrificed so much to join.

 

This was the immense inner strength of Ruth. She understood all that she was relinquishing, yet she chose the path of Judaism.

 

Continuing the narrative, we see the outcome of Ruth’s determination.

Life in the Holy Land

Ruth and Naomi approach the Holy Land. People snicker and stare in astonishment, shocked by Naomi. Can this wrinkled, barefoot woman, lacking even a parasol to shield her fine features, be the same affluent and revered noblewoman who deserted them in their desperate times, abandoning the Land of Israel on her extravagant horse-drawn chariots?

People are not certain how to respond. Perhaps Naomi should be ostracized for forsaking her nation. Or perhaps she deserves sympathy and compassion in light of her misery and degradation. And what of Ruth? Is she a genuine convert? Is her status as a Jewess legitimate?

The famine had recently ended and the first crops were ripe for harvesting. The initial curiosity over Ruth and Naomi begins to wane. As people become preoccupied with their own harvesting, Naomi and Ruth are no longer the center of attention.

Life goes on. Ruth and Naomi subsist with what little they have. But in time, that too is exhausted. Aware of the extensive laws of charity in the Torah, Ruth requests permission from her mother-in-law to glean among the leftover ears of corn from the local fields, as was customary for the poor. Reluctantly, Naomi allows her regal daughter-in-law to garner grains as would any common beggar.

The Meeting

As Divine Providence would have it, Ruth is directed to the field of the illustrious Boaz, leader of the generation. Boaz is also Naomi’s nephew, the son of Elimelech’s brother. Boaz returns to his fields after his wife’s recent passing, at the precise moment that Ruth is gleaning there.

Though unaccustomed to casting more than a glance at the paupers in his field, Boaz’s attention is drawn to Ruth. He marvels at her proficiency in the laws of charity, restricting her gleaning to only two individual ears of corn, whereas most beggars hoarded whole sheaves of the fallen grains. He admires her modesty and the special, chaste way in which she bends to the ground. He is awed by her general refinement of character, and wonders who this unusual woman could be.

Speaking with his workers, Boaz learns that this woman is his close relative through marriage. He approaches Ruth and graciously invites her to continue reaping in his fields. He charitably offers her lodging with his maidservants, and welcomes her to glean as much as she desires without limiting her in any way. Boaz also instructs his servants to be especially generous to Ruth.

By the conclusion of the harvest season, Ruth is able to amass a sizable amount of grain from Boaz’s fields. At last, after weeks of strenuous labor, the final day of harvesting arrives. Ruth is invited that evening to Boaz’s thanksgiving party, celebrating the first abundant harvest since the onset of the famine. Before leaving to attend the dinner, Naomi—in a tone of grave importance—instructs Ruth to follow an incredible plan. Ruth obligingly undertakes to follow every step of the astounding instructions

Midnight Encounter

That evening after the festive meal, Boaz retires to the threshing floor where he is accustomed to sleep during the harvesting season. As he falls into a deep sleep, Ruth stealthily sneaks in, uncovers the blanket from Boaz’s feet and reclines at the side of his feet. When Boaz awakens in the middle of the night, he discerns the form of a woman and orders her to identify herself. In her demure manner, Ruth explains who she is and proceeds to demand that Boaz fulfill his obligation to her, the penniless Moabite convert, by taking her hand in marriage!

In this bewildering episode, Ruth, through the instructions of Naomi, was alluding to the Jewish law of yibum, levirate marriage. This law states that if, in a valid marriage, the husband dies childless, his nearest of kin is required to marry the deceased’s widow (if both he and the widow consent) in order to perpetuate the name of the deceased. If either party is disinclined, the nearest of kin is obligated to perform a ceremony, chalitza, involving the removal of his shoe, which is what Ruth was alluding to by uncovering Boaz’s feet. Ruth, now, is requesting Boaz to live up to this responsibility.

There were two possible reactions from Boaz to this surprising proposal. He might appreciate the sincerity and pure motives of Ruth, and agree to marry her; or more plausibly, he might become infuriated and offended by Ruth’s brazen behavior and severely reprimand her for acting in such a fashion.

Ruth had already been ostracized by many for being a Moabite convert previously married (possibly without prior conversion) to someone who had deserted the Jewish people. If Boaz were indeed to perceive the proposal in a negative light, she would face public disgrace and total ostracism. Any chance of integration into normal Jewish communal life would be lost.

Ruth was an intelligent woman, capable of foreseeing the implications of her actions. Yet when Naomi advised her to execute this potentially scandalous plot, we see no hesitation on the part of Ruth. Why? And from where did Ruth acquire this courage to disregard her own plight even if it entailed being cursed by the leading sage of the generation?

The Sacrifice

To gain a deeper perspective, we have to look back several centuries in time to Ruth’s ancestor, the daughter of Lot. In fact, Ruth’s connection with Lot’s daughter, the mother of Moav, is more than one of simple ancestry. Sources from Kabbala teach that the soul of Lot’s eldest daughter was reincarnated in Ruth. It was from Lot’s eldest daughter that Ruth acquired the strength to implement her seemingly audacious behavior.

The Torah records that when G‑d became angry with the corrupt inhabitants of Sodom, He sent an angel to destroy the city. Through the interventions of his righteous uncle, Avraham, Lot and his daughters were rescued. They were unaware that only the inhabitants of Sodom were killed. Lot’s daughters believed that, as in the days of Noah, the members of their family were the sole survivors on earth. To them, the destruction of Sodom spelled the end of human life.

Lot’s eldest daughter did not hesitate to take a bold step that she felt was essential for the survival of humanity. She intoxicated her father and then had relations with him while he slept. Her motive in lying with her father was solely to perpetuate mankind, and the act was performed with the purest of intentions.

Although she had the rashness to cohabit with her own father, her motives were sincere. Therefore, she ultimately received rewards for this incestuous act. Many generations later, her descendant, Ruth, converted to Judaism and mothered Israel’s ruling dynasty, beginning with her great-grandchild King David, and culminating with Mashiach.

It was from Lot’s daughter that Ruth acquired the fortitude to disregard her personal shame for the sake of mankind, and, more specifically, the Jewish people. Naomi had disclosed to Ruth that the future of the Jewish people would rest on this bizarre, midnight meeting with Boaz. Through her prophetic powers, Naomi had informed Ruth that the union between Boaz and Ruth had the capability of bringing the light of Mashiach into this world.

Ruth, confronted with possible personal doom on the one hand, and the potential of bringing a great Divine light into the world on the other, did not hesitate. There was no room in her mind for considering her personal, albeit spiritual, welfare when it came to heightening holiness in the world at large, and bringing mankind to its utmost completion.

Boaz, the leader of the nation, perceived this purity and grandeur of character when Ruth came with her demand. He realized all that Ruth was risking by laying at his bedside in the dark of night. He appreciated the courage it required.

It was from this meeting that Boaz acquired a new perception of Ruth. Now he could discern that Ruth was more than the modest, righteous and learned woman that he had noticed in his fields. She was even more than an extraordinary woman who jeopardized everything to become a part of the Jewish nation.

Here was a woman of self-sacrifice, devoid of any selfish aspirations, including spiritual ones. Ruth was willing to forego her entire self, even if this might involve being cursed by the sage of the time, in order to do something that had the potential of intensifying G‑dly light for mankind. Only a person of such stature had the capability of becoming the forebear of Mashiach.

Mashiach has the task of “fighting the war of G‑d” (Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 11:1), by combating common perceptions that creation lacks a G‑d. Mashiach will convince the Jewish people, a “stiff-necked” nation, to return to a spiritual life of Torah. Mashiach will not be affected by present-day norms or societal pressures. His consciousness will only be concerned with magnifying G‑dly awareness among his people.

Only someone of Ruth’s caliber could merit to mother a soul of such quality.

The End

Boaz did indeed follow the laws of levirate marriage by marrying Ruth. He attempted to publicize through this marriage, as well, a clarification of the law that female Moabite converts (as opposed to male Moabite converts) were permitted in marriage.

On the night of the consummation of their marriage, Ruth conceived a child, later named Oved. Boaz was eighty years old at the time. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the birth of his child. The day following Boaz and Ruth’s first union, Boaz died.

Many ignorant people understood this to be a sign from heaven that G‑d was affronted by his forbidden marriage to a Moabite convert. Only in later generations, in the latter part of the life of King David, did people finally appreciate that G‑d had extended Boaz’s life specifically for this union.

Boaz’s son, Oved (appropriately named—oved means “one who continuously serves,” and he served G‑d, doing His will), had a son named Yishai, who was the father of King David. Ruth lived to old age and was able to see her great-grandchild, David, ascend the royal throne and wear the crown of the king of the nation of G‑d. Ruth was finally beginning to be rewarded with seeing the fruits of her labor.

Ruth’s ultimate reward, and the reward of the entire Jewish people, is yet to come...

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*) Chana Weisberg is the author of four books including the best-selling Divine Whispers and the newly released Tending the Garden: The Unique Gifts of the Jewish Woman.

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Posted on May 17, 2007
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