Parashat Shavuot: On the threshing floor

The Scroll of Ruth contains one of the most idyllic stories in the Bible, a tale of "autumnal love" between a widow and a widower, against the backdrop of Diaspora intermarriage, conversion to Judaism, and the agricultural life in ancient Israel.

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May 16, 2007 10:37
4 minute read.

The Scroll of Ruth contains one of the most idyllic stories in the Bible, a tale of "autumnal love" between a widow (Ruth) and a widower (Boaz), against the backdrop of Diaspora intermarriage, conversion to Judaism, and the agricultural life in ancient Israel. Our sages ordained that we read this scroll on Shavuot, the anniversary of the Revelation at Sinai and the celebration of the first fruits brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. Since Shavuot celebrates the climax of Pessah, when newly freed slaves in the desert became a Torah-imbued nation ensconced in their own homeland, the reasons for this reading are many: Boaz and Ruth are the great-grandparents of King David, the Psalm-writing military hero who united the tribes of Israel and first envisioned the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Ruth the Moabite is a Jew-by-choice whose commitment to Judaism makes her worthy of being the great-grandmother of the king who symbolizes our Redeemer, and the last three chapters of the story take place between the beginning of the barley harvest (just before Pessah) and the end of the wheat harvest (not long after Shavuot). However, there are three aspects of the Scroll of Ruth which seem strange. First, from a narrative perspective: The Book of Ruth is four chapters long, and if we examine the structure we find that the first chapter spans the 10 years the family of Naomi spends in Moab, while the majority of the book is devoted to the happenings of the three-month period between the barley and wheat harvests. Why did the author give so much space to such a short span of time? Secondly, the Midrash (Ruth Rabba) tells us that Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem during the funeral of Boaz's wife, and that Boaz died immediately after he impregnated Ruth; that is how the sages account for the fact that Boaz is not mentioned in the last verses of the Scroll (Ruth 4:14-22). But why would our sages see fit to sandwich such a significant love story between two seemingly tragic deaths - without the text mentioning those deaths, or even hinting at a mournful mood? And finally, can we glean from between the lines what precisely occurred between Boaz and Ruth during that poignant night they spent on the threshing floor? What did Naomi plan would happen, and what actually did? If Shavuot is truly the Festival of Redemption - and redemption links humanity to the God of all eternity - the period which is eternally Sabbath - then the Scroll of Ruth must emphasize Israel as the eternal homeland of the Jewish people. Hence, the first chapter opens with a famine in Israel, and an important personage (Elimelech) who leaves Bethlehem (literally "the house of bread") with his wife and sons to seek "greener pastures" in idol-ridden Moab. As happened with Father Abraham (Gen. 12:10-20), the voluntary exile was really a case of "out of the frying pan and into the fire": the two sons, Mahlon (lit. "sickness") and Chilion (lit. "destruction") marry Hittite wives - and since children follow the religion of the mother, the Israelite line of Elimelech and Naomi seems to have ended! The father and his sons die in Moab and Naomi (lit. "sweetness") changes her name to Marah (lit. "bitterness"). Fortunately, one daughter-in-law clings to her mother-in-law, converts to Judaism ("Where you will go" - to Israel - "there shall I go, where you will lodge, there shall I lodge" - maintaining the same sexual purity as you - "Your people shall be my people; your God, my God" - Ruth 1:16), and returns to Bethlehem. Only now - in Israel - can eternal history resume. Therefore the events of the next three months become far more significant than those of the previous 10 years in Moab. And, yes, it is true that the Midrash tells us Boaz's wife has died just as Naomi and Ruth return - and that Boaz will die three months later. But death itself is not tragic in Judaism; every individual must die. The only relevant question is to what extent the individual, when alive, participated in Jewish eternity. Naomi sends Ruth to glean the grain which the Torah provides for poor Israelites. Divine Providence sent Ruth to Boaz's field, and Boaz was a kinsman of Elimelech. Boaz seems attracted to this comely proselyte-stranger and gives her his protection. Naomi understands that participation in Jewish eternity means having a child with Jewish parentage in Israel; she therefore instructs Ruth to wash and anoint herself, dress in special finery, visit the place on the threshing floor where Boaz will be spending the night, and lie down at his feet. She also warns Ruth not to reveal who she is (Ruth 3:3, 4). In effect, she is suggesting that Ruth tempt Boaz as Tamar had tempted Boaz's forebear Judah generations earlier - and enter eternal Jewish history by bearing his child just as Tamar did with Judah (see Genesis, chapter 38). Ruth, however, senses that Boaz truly loves her - and so she holds out for more than a one-night stand. She tells him exactly who she is, and asks that he "redeem" her by marriage and by restoring Elimelech's previously sold homestead to her. Ruth understands that true eternity means not only bearing an Israelite child but doing so on your own piece of Israel - not on the sly, but as a respected Israelite wife. Boaz complies, and Oved, the grandfather of King David, is born. Ruth's commitment to the land of Torah, the laws of Torah, the loving-kindness of Torah and the modesty of Torah catapults this convert onto Judaism's center stage. Indeed, there is no book more fitting for the Festival of The First Fruits, Torah and Redemption than the Scroll of Ruth. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.


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