Parshat Bamidbar – Ruth 2019
Shavuot is coming and with it, we read one of the two books in the Bible which has a story line with a beginning, a middle and an end: the Book of Ruth. The other, of course, is the Book of Esther. We read Ruth on Shavuot first because it’s the right time, the period of reaping the barley and wheat, from Pesach to Shavuot. And it talks about conversion. When the Torah was given on Shavuot it essentially converted the former slaves into Jews. And ultimately, it is a story of chesed, of good social relations and altruism.
The story takes place during the period of the Judges, with its moral degeneration, idol worship and tendency to leave Israel that we see today. Elimelech and Naomi are not poor emigres. They belong to the upper crust of the important tribe of Ephraim and they are leaving beit lechem which means the home of bread to go to the fields of Moab: from the breadbasket to greener pastures.
Within 10 years, Naomi loses her husband and two sons. Left with no support, no income, she decides to return to Bethlehem, and in a show of pure chesed – altruism, she urges her daughters in law to get a new life for themselves. She frees them from their obligation to her family even though this means she will be left totally alone.
Ruth trumps her altruism and insists on joining her and her people. When they return, everyone is shocked by how low Naomi has fallen, but no one extends a hand. Only Ruth is there. That’s chapter 1, act 1.
In act 2, Ruth, by “chance,” ends up gathering grain in Boaz’s fields. He sees her and asks who she is. Then he instructs his reapers to leave extra grains in the fields for her gather. He tells her she can come and drink when she’s thirsty. He invites her to eat with the reapers. And he tells his workers – hands off! Don’t harass her. Why? Is it love? No. How do we know? Because he disappears. He’s busy with his fields. He doesn’t talk to her again. The big love story evaporates.
This means that his invitation to her (and not to the other poor people in the field) was an act of chesed. Because, he tells her, she’s an outsider who behaved with goodness. Everyone knew of the two women who had returned penniless from Moav and now he wants to make her, the outsider, feel welcome. Chesed. Not love.
Chapter 3 (act 3) is where the two women, Naomi and Ruth, have to devise a strategy to push Boaz out of his passivity. He is not taking any initiative, and it may be that the men in general had given up. They felt hopeless because of the terrible situation in the country.
Note that the plan to get Boaz moving is devised by Naomi. Even though Ruth is more energetic, more active, Naomi has to suggest the move, because if it comes from Ruth, she will be perceived as licentious. If it comes from Naomi it is sage advice.
Ruth must go to the field where Boaz will be lying down – after he has had his fill of food and wine. Because business deals are almost always more successful when the parties involved are satiated. And it must be secret. Ruth cannot be seen and thus perceived as a forward hussy.
So she lies at his feet, which is like washing someone else’s feet – intimate but still modest. And it was dangerous. Suppose Boaz hadn’t made any advances because he really wasn’t interested in her? He was much older, and not all old men are dirty old men. That would have been embarrassing!!
She asks him to “spread your wings over me” which means, “Marry me!” And this does the trick. To show he is serious he sends Ruth home (in the dark) with a large portion of kernels of grain, because words are cheap. A gift means you’re serious.
Act 4, Chapter 4. Boaz is nothing if not efficient. He corrals ten men to serve as witnesses at the city gate. He catches the person who has first dibs on the inheritance, and plays him like a chess master. He hooks him with the possibility of getting richer. How would you like to take over the inheritance of Machlon and Kilyon? Oh sure, great. More land, more money. Then he adds: And oh, by the way, you’ll also have to take on Ruth.
Oh, that’s another story. A son wouldn’t be his son – he would inherit the original husband’s land, and create problems with his own family. No no no, you take it, Boaz. OK, here are the witnesses, sign on the dotted line.
Boaz’s original act of chesed leads to marriage which yields a son whom the people of the city dub “the son of Naomi.” This is her reward for her altruistic actions. And the reward for Ruth and Boaz and the Israelite nation as a whole is that a few generations later – David – eventually King David, is born.
A fascinating story, a depiction of life during the time of the judges, and a morality play emphasizing the importance of altruistic behavior – gemilut chasadim or chesed – for us all.
(Much of this is based on a lecture presented by Avshalom Kapach of Jerusalem.)
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Samech