As we celebrate the pilgrimage festival of Shavuot this week, one of our traditions is to engage in the reading of The Book of Ruth. While a connection to Shavuot is not necessarily explicit in the text, our tradition gives many explanations as to why we read this particular book on Shavuot. The story is set during the barley harvest time, and Ruth is a direct descendant of King David, who is reported to have died on Shavuot. According to Rabbi Ze’era of the Talmud, The Book of Ruth does not give us any information regarding what is clean or unclean, or what is prohibited or permitted. Rabbi Ze’era claims that the Book of Ruth was written simply in order to teach us that there is great reward for those who engage in acts of kindness (Ruth R. 2.14). We see three major characters in this story; Ruth, Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi, and Naomi’s kinsman Boaz. What we read in this book is a remarkable story of two strong women, a rarity in many biblical writings, making their own way in a patriarchal and unkind society. It is said that the Book of Ruth took place during the time of judges. “And it came to pass (vayehi) in the days when the judges judged” (Ruth 1:1). According to Rabbi Eleazar, wherever the word “vayehi” occurs, woe lingers. We have much to learn from Ruth and Naomi’s behavior amidst trying times.
To give a brief summary of the story, Naomi and her husband Elimelech are living during these difficult times with their two sons in Bethlehem. Famine was rampant, so the family was forced to travel to Moab in search of greener pastures. While in Moab, Naomi and Elimelech’s two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, both marry Moabite women. Orpah and Ruth become part of the family through marriage. Very soon into the story all of the men die, and Naomi is left with her two daughters-in-law in the foreign Moabite land. Naomi decides to return to the land of Bethlehem, and tells her daughters by marriage that they should go back to where they came from. “Turn back, each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me!” (Ruth 1:8). Eventually Orpah decides to heed Naomi’s words, and it is said that she becomes an ancestor of the famous giant Philistine, Goliath. Ruth, however, shows an incredible amount of loyalty to her mother-in-law. Ruth famously says, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Let’s circle back to that incredible display of loyalty in a moment. Eventually, Naomi and Ruth re-enter Israelite land wherein Ruth is gleaning in the field of Boaz. Boaz, who ends up being a kinsman of Naomi, takes a liking to Ruth, and the two eventually become married. Boaz is called the “redeemer” of the family of Naomi. Ruth and Boaz have a son named Obed, who becomes a direct descendant of King David.
Let us focus for a moment on Ruth’s incredible personal journey. When she proclaims her loyalty to Naomi, remember she says that, “your God [shall become] my God.” Ruth is essentially telling us that she wishes to convert to Judaism! Rabbi Ze’er tells us of the “chesed” or kindness that is displayed in this book. Isn’t it interesting to find that an extreme act of loyalty between two strong women directly leads to the creation of the messianic line of King David? So often in Judaism, there exists the notion that conversion and intermarriage is something to look down upon, or that marrying a non-Jew is akin to slowly doing away with Judaism itself. The Book of Ruth appears to operate in stark contrast to this line of thinking. Ruth is an honorable and strong person who happens to be a non-Jewish woman. She decided of her own accord to become a Jewish woman, eventually marries a Jewish man, and is seemingly accepted by society. There is much to learn about our contemporary views from Ruth’s story. Ruth’s Judaism is present in her fierce loyalty and kindness to Naomi, and her devotion to God. What could be more Jewish than supporting one’s loved one during a time of strife? The Jews have always become stronger in the face of adversity, and Ruth displays this resiliency in spades. While Naomi is in a state of despair after the loss of so many of her family members, Ruth stays by her side, and both women appear to lift one another up. Naomi is so down when she returns to Bethlehem that she requests to be called “Mara,” meaning “bitterness” as opposed to her original name. Dr. Yael Shemesh of Bar-Ilan University brings up an interesting linguistic connection in the text. When Naomi is telling her daughters-in-law to leave her side, it is said, “But Ruth clung to her” (Ruth 1:14). The word for cling, “davak,” is reminiscent of a verse in Genesis: “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). As opposed to a man leaving his parents, clinging to his wife, and becoming one flesh, we see similar language to describe two women, a mother and daughter, forming a bond of beautiful sisterhood. Their connection is strong and profoundly meaningful. In case you were still wondering about the gravity of Ruth’s presence and impact on not only Naomi, but the people of Israel, in 4:11, the people and elders of Israel say of Ruth, “May the Lord make the woman is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel!” Ruth, a convert to Judaism, is compared to the matriarchs Rachel and Leah by Jewish elders. This is an important thought to keep in mind before looking sideways at conversion or intermarriage.
While it would be easy to call the Book of Ruth a simple story about loss and redemption with two strong female protagonists, it would not be very Jewish of us to omit addressing some glaring concerns. We live in a contemporary world in the United States wherein women are not treated as equals to men. Astonishingly, women still only make 81 cents for every dollar that a man earns for performing the exact same job. While the number of women in CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies is at its highest rate in history, that number is still only 33. Our society still has quite a long way to go in many areas before we can consider ourselves truly equal. The same patriarchy existed in the time of Naomi and Ruth. Boaz, Naomi’s kinsman in Bethlehem, is termed “the redeemer” of Naomi’s family. Many people also find it hard to reconcile the fact that Naomi essentially tells Ruth to give herself to Boaz physically in order for them to be restored. Naomi tells Ruth, “So bathe, anoint yourself, dress up, and go down to the threshing floor…When he lies down note the place where he lies down, and go over and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what you are to do” (Ruth 3:3-4). While the methods of their rise in Bethlehem might be less-than-desirable, were these strong women working within the confines of the society that they knew was dominant? I believe it is important that we take note of the fact that Ruth and Naomi were living in a male-dominated society, and they operated knowing just that. Boaz does eventually tell Ruth, “I will do in your behalf whatever you ask…” (Ruth 3:11). Toward the end of The Book of Ruth, a rare biblical dialogue of a woman’s worth being equal to or greater than a man’s occurs. The women of Bethlehem said to Naomi in reference to her new grandson, Ruth’s child, “He will renew your life and sustain your old age; for he is born of your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons” (Ruth 4:15). Ruth is better to Naomi than seven sons. These are no miniscule words of praise for Ruth, whose name might mean “the one who fills to overflowing.”
The Book of Ruth, while told through the lens of a highly patriarchal society, does have much to celebrate. Naomi and Ruth share trials and tribulations of love, loss, uncertainty, journey, hunger, and ultimately great happiness and redemption. Perhaps Boaz was the male vessel that these strong women happened to use in order to fulfill their higher purpose. In the modern world, I will urge my own daughter, who is named for Naomi, to strive for the greatest heights no matter what society tells her she should do. Sometimes we work with where we are and what is in front of us, and as Jews, we know that the work is in progress, but not yet complete. This week, as we celebrate the revelation at Mount Sinai during Shavuot, I hope we can take some time to remember Ruth and Naomi. These two women exemplified strength, courage, and sisterhood in the face of the unknown, perhaps equivalent to Abram when he was told “Lech Lecha” (go forth) by God in the Book of Genesis.
May our own country be blessed with a revelation wherein the powers that be correct the wrongs of generations. A dollar must become a dollar, no matter the gender. A marriage is a marriage, no matter the faiths, or even the genders. Flesh can cling to any flesh. Love is love, and loyalty is loyalty.
May we all be blessed as the protagonists of our own stories, and the redeemers of our own souls. May we find within us the kindness or “chesed” which Ruth showed to Naomi; that which mirrors the covenant between God and the people of Israel that was forged at Mount Sinai.