D’var Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat (Parshat Naso), 5th Sivan 5776, 11th June 2016
On each of the Shalosh Regalim we read one of the megilot. Tomorrow, Shavuot, we read the book of Ruth, the heartwarming tale of a Moabite woman whose Judean husband, father-in-law and brother-in-law all die in Moab and her mother-in-law Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem. Ruth and her sister-in-law Orpah say they will accompany Naomi home, but when she urges to stay in Moab, get married again and have a life, Orpah jumps at the opportunity.
Ruth, however, in her famous heart-rending soliloquy, professes her undying devotion to Naomi, her people, her God, her way of life, and so they return. And she meets a nice rich Jewish guy, they marry and have children and Ruth, it turns out, actually becomes the great-grandmother of King David. Such a good girl. Such a warm story.
Except that at the heart of the story is a subversive element, a flagrant violation of the Torah. Like the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem, Ecclesiastes, a litany of regrets and depression, and Esther, a fairytale set in Persia – the book of Ruth has a heroine who should not be there. Modern commentators ranging from Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi of the Hebrew Union College and Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin of Munsey NJ and Ohr Sameach yeshiva point out this discrepancy, which was noted in the Talmud and Midrash as well.
Ruth was a Moabite, and according to Devarim, chap. 23, “No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the congregation of God, not even the tenth generation shall enter the congregation of God.” In other words, she was a persona non grata! The rabbis did somersaults to get around this prohibition, the main one being: it says Moabite (male) not Moabitess (female). But that’s a poor explanation, and so the midrash says, don’t use Ruth as proof of purity or impurity, of the forbidden or the permitted. In other words, just enjoy the story.
The lesson that is found from all these soul-searching efforts is that chesed – lovingkindness and good deeds – trumps the cold law. Ruth’s devotion, her willingness to leave behind all she knew and enter unknown territory, and then to exert extraordinary efforts just to make Naomi’s life bearable, allows us to turn a blind eye to the law.
There is another anomaly in the book of Ruth. While it is not as prominent as the Moabite issue, it raises a few eyebrows. We see that Prince Charming Boaz decides that he will spread his wings to protect the brave Moabite woman who has cast her lot in with the Judeans. He goes to the city wall, gathers some elders, buttonholes the relative who is closer to Naomi than he is, and offers him Ruth. The latter declines, because he doesn’t want to endanger his inheritance. So Boaz steps in and marries her.
A true levirate marriage, where when the husband dies the brother is obligated to marry the widow. Brother? Is Boaz a brother? No he is not. He is a relative, and not the closest relative either. He has no obligation to marry Ruth – his obligation is to make sure she is safe and has enough to eat. But he goes the whole nine yards and marries her, after conducting halitza – shoe removing – ceremony, to gain first place in the list of potential guardians.
But it’s not necessary. Is he doing it because he wants to find a way around the problem of not marrying a Moabite? Or is it because he truly loves her? We don’t know, but love does seem to be in the air here.
And listen to the blessings that are showered on Boaz by the elders of the city, as they too flout the law. May your house be like the house of Peretz whom Tamar bore to Judah. Boaz is a descendent of Peretz, who, you may remember, was the offspring of the incestuous one-time fling between Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar, which was initiated by Tamar because Judah had not fulfilled his responsibility and promise of a levirate marriage between Tamar and Yehuda’s youngest son.
Perhaps the connection between Peretz and Boaz is the levirate marriage. Dr. Eskenazi theorizes that in both cases, there were irregular acts, against the rules, and also that Peretz means “a breach” or “a breaking forth.” Like breaking the rules.
Could this be one of the lessons we are supposed to learn by reading Ruth on Shavuot? How to turn teachings “written in stone” into life-enhancing actions? Perhaps a breach in the wall is sometimes necessary to let in the widow, the poor and the stranger to be protected by the Torah.
And finally, three generations later, David is born, the great-grandson of Ruth and Boaz.
So, what do we learn? That where there’s a will there’s a way? Today, Ruth would never make it past the conversion courts. Her children would never be accepted by the very religious and would certainly never be eligible for kingship over our people. Not that he’d necessarily want the post today.
The message of the book, then, is that chesed, good deeds, do indeed count; that each case has to be weighed on its own merits. Oprah didn’t want into this, Ruth was willing and succeeded in affecting us all.
We read this story on Shavuot, not only because it is the right season, but because we are being told that the Torah is open to all who want to come in and live by its most basic precepts (with one proviso today – they must meet strict rabbinical conditions.).
Shabbat Shalom and chag same’ach.