The Bible depicts the holiday of Shavuot as a harvest festival, but talmudic tradition overlaid that theme with a theological motif. Shavuot occurs exactly seven weeks after Passover, and in the worldview of the rabbis the holiday commemorates divine revelation, the moment when the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai to accept the Torah and its commandments.
In philosophical terms, it is national movement from “negative freedom” – liberation from Egyptian slavery – to “positive freedom” – acceptance of substantive social and moral values. Hence there arose a beautiful Jewish custom to stay awake all Shavuot night studying Torah, so each post-Sinai Jew could re-experience that divine encounter and plumb the Torah’s mysterious content. We also read the Scroll of Ruth (Megilat Ruth) on the morning of the holiday.
Megilat Ruth is short, its plot elegant. In four short chapters, the megila succeeds in dramatizing the depth and beauty of human compassion.
There are secondary dimensions, such as the Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel, Ruth’s conversion to Judaism, the spiritual renewal of Naomi, and Ruth’s central role in shaping the Jewish people. But the dominant theme is neither Zionist nor halachic (legal) nor feminist. In the center of the story stands human kindness (hessed) and its power in history.
The poignant tale begins in Bethlehem circa 1200 BCE. Elimelech is a wealthy Jew who leaves his native Israel when a famine hits. He takes his wife, Naomi, and two sons with him across the Jordan to the land of Moab. Finding the good life there, he decides to stay, and his sons marry Moabite women. Then disaster strikes: Elimelech and his sons die, widowing Naomi and her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. The women find themselves abandoned and poverty-stricken in a hostile country.
Naomi gives up all hope and decides to return to home – perhaps to die. She implores her Moabite daughters-in-law not to accompany her, for as strangers they will have no future with her in Jewish Bethlehem. Orpah accepts the logic of Naomi’s plea, but Ruth resists. In a gesture of breathtaking kindness, Ruth pledges absolute devotion to Naomi: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you stay I will stay. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” So the two widows return to Bethlehem where Naomi instructs the residents to call her Mara (“bitterness”) rather than her true name, which means “pleasantness.” Crushed and embittered, Naomi has lost all faith in the future.
It is harvest season and Ruth sets out to provide for Naomi by gleaning the fields, taking the barley grain left behind by the reapers. (It is a commandment of the Torah to leave the corners of one’s fields for the poor and the stranger – a biblical welfare system.) Ruth chances on the fields of Boaz, the richest land-baron in the area. When Boaz learns the identity of this Moabite stranger, he pleads with Ruth to stay in his fields and take whatever she needs. He orders his workers to protect her and treat her generously, as one of the family.
“But why are you so kind to single me out when I am only a foreigner?” asks Ruth.
Replies Boaz, “I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after your husband’s death: how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before.”
Boaz stands in awe of Ruth’s selflessness and kindness. He feels honored in the presence of this indigent, yet magnanimous, stranger! Boaz gives Ruth enough barley to last Naomi and her for five full days – well beyond the religious commandment or a day’s normal gleaning. When Ruth returns, she relates Boaz’s kindness to her mother-in-law. Naomi begins to feel some hope for the future, and thankfulness penetrates her bitter spirit: “Blessed be he to the Lord who has not withheld his kindness to the living or the dead.”
Naomi allows herself to hope that her relative Boaz will buy back (redeem) the family plot, which had been sold out of poverty. But dare she hope that he will even marry Ruth to preserve the family name and protect the two widows – two other mitzvot of the Torah? The harvest season quickly passes, and Boaz has maintained his generous, but formal, posture toward Ruth. Naomi senses that she must take the initiative and instructs Ruth to act boldly: “Bathe, cover yourself with oils, dress up and go to the threshing floor tonight... When Boaz is asleep, uncover his feet and lie down next to him... He will tell you what to do next.”
After Ruth follows her mother-in-law’s instructions, Boaz awakens startled to find a woman lying next to him: “Who are you?” “I am your handmaid Ruth. Spread your robe over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman.”
Boaz, an elderly man of 80 years, correctly interprets Ruth’s gesture as a request for marriage and proclaims, “This recent act of hessed is greater than your first [to Naomi], for you have not turned to younger men, rich or poor.”
How ironic, yet true: The wealthy and powerful Boaz also needs human kindness! (Evidently Boaz was a successful entrepreneur, but his personal life was in shambles. How many CEOs are divorced? How may rich people suffer loneliness?) The megila is telling us that every person – rich or poor, powerful or weak, “successful” or unfortunate – feels loneliness and insecurity.
Every one of us needs hessed.
Boaz wants to marry Ruth, yet there is an obstacle: Ruth has a closer relative with prior rights to “redeem” the family plot according to biblical law. Early the next morning Boaz confronts this relative in the town square: “Buy the land in the presence of those seated here... But if you refuse to redeem it, tell me, for I am next after you.”
Eager to own more property, the relative readily consents, but then Boaz shrewdly adds: “You must also acquire the wife of the deceased, Ruth the Moabite.”
Acquiring profitable land makes sense, but taking responsibility for a foreign Moabite woman is quite another matter.
“Then I cannot redeem it lest I destroy my own estate. You take over my right of redemption.”
The megila pointedly refuses to name this selfish kinsman. He is referred to simply as the anonymous “Ploni-Almoni” – the Hebrew equivalent of John Doe. His stinginess stands in marked contrast to Boaz’s generosity, and because of his selfishness his name will never be recorded among the Jewish people.
Now free of impediments, Boaz marries Ruth and assumes responsibility for the two women.
Out of this loving marriage, Ruth bears a son.
Naomi regains hope when she is told that the boy “will renew your life and sustain you in old age. He is born to your daughter-in-law who loves you and is better to you than seven sons.”
But who is this child born to Boaz and Ruth? He is Obed, the grandfather of King David and the father of the messianic lineage. From Ruth’s one gracious act of hessed emerges the king of the Jewish people; and from King David will emerge the messiah, who will bring peace to all humanity.
The obvious question arises: Why did the Talmudic rabbis select the holiday of Shavuot, Hag Matan Toratenu, for the Jewish People to hear Megilat Ruth? The Babylonian Talmud (Sota 14a) states: “The Torah begins with an act of hessed and ends with an act of hessed.” In other words, the entire Torah is hessed! It is a blueprint for how to live a life of kindness and how to support others. The Torah depicts God Himself as the role model for acts of hessed: He clothes the naked (Adam and Eve), visits the sick (Abraham), comforts those in mourning (Isaac), and buries the dead (Moses). Ten centuries later, Maimonides taught that the most profound reason the Torah relates God’s merciful attributes is to teach us to imitate divine kindness.
Megilat Ruth is the most human of biblical stories; its focus is personal hessed. Yet beneath the surface is the interplay of human and divine kindness. The entire story is made possible by Ruth’s magnificent gesture toward Naomi.
God responds by setting up Ruth’s “accidental” meeting of Boaz. All would end there but for Boaz’s generosity toward Ruth. God then reacts by giving Ruth a son, the ancestor of King David and the Messiah – the redeemers of Israel and all humanity. As the midrash explains, “Ruth did her part, Boaz did his part, whereupon God said, ‘I must do My part.’” Evidently, to merit divine compassion we must act with hessed toward each other.
The stage was thus set for messianic history.
Megilat Ruth tells us that one person’s act of kindness can have cosmic influence, and that God has an infinite stake in every gesture of human compassion.
The author, a rabbi, lives in Jerusalem and is a director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding in Efrat, and Senior Research Fellow in Bet Morasha of Jerusalem’s Institute for Religion and Society.