Tradition Today: The way of ‘hessed’

The main thrust of the Book of Ruth is to teach that concern for the welfare of others is the answer to tragedy and suffering.

May 28, 2010 17:14
4 minute read.
Tradition Today: The way of ‘hessed’

shavuot generic 248.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The Book of Ruth, which was read in synagogues on Shavuot, is a magnificent work, well worthy of its place in the biblical canon. Not only is it a superb novella, but it also conveys some important messages. It manages to inculcate the love of the Land of Israel and its people while at the same time displaying an appreciation for the good people of other places and beliefs. Remember, not only Ruth but also Orpah is described by Naomi as having dealt kindly “with the dead and with me” (Ruth 1:8). Thus the book displays at the same time an appreciation of Judaism’s particularity as well as its universalism.

Consider the message contained in the fact that the ancestress of David, the future king and founder of the blessed dynasty, is a Moabite, a people that elsewhere in the Bible is described as not worthy of being accepted into the “congregation of the Lord because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam son of Beor... to curse you” (Deuteronomy 23:5). Consider further that this same David is to be the ancestor of the messiah.

Ruth has often been depicted as the model for converts to Judaism. Although conversion as we know it, i.e. a specific ritual act by which one becomes a full Jew, was not known in the time of the Judges, the setting of this book, or whenever the book may have been written, Ruth does join the people of Israel and is accepted as such. Her declaration, “Your people shall be my people, your God my God” (Ruth 1:16) is indeed a wonderful outline of what it means to be a convert: identifying with both the people Israel and with the God of Israel.

Although Ruth continues to refer to herself as a foreigner (Ruth 2:10), Boaz declares that she has sought refuge and “come under the wings” of “the Lord, the God of Israel” (Ruth 2:12), a phrase we still use to refer to converts. The positive manner in which Ruth is depicted throughout the book is a signal that converts are to be accepted and treasured, unlike the unfortunate way in which conversion has so often been handled in Israel of late.

Worth noting as well is the way that the core values of Judaism are portrayed. Hessed – acts of loving-kindness – forms the very basis of the story, as the repeated use of the word indicates. Naomi speaks of the hessed of her daughters-in-law, as has been noted. Ruth herself is the very embodiment of hessed in her care for Naomi. Boaz praises her for her acts of hessed (Ruth 3:10). Boaz himself demonstrates such loving care when he goes beyond the biblical commands of helping the poor in his concern for Ruth and her welfare (Ruth 2:15). As a matter of fact it could be said that the main thrust of the book is to teach that hessed – concern for the welfare of others – is the answer to tragedy and suffering.

When we look beneath the surface, we discover that the story of the Book of Ruth is not merely one of a pastoral romance, but rather that is remarkably similar to one of the darkest and most tragic books of the Bible, the Book of Job. In both books there is a righteous person (Job and Naomi) who undergoes terrible suffering (the trials of Job and the death of Naomi’s husband and sons, as well as her impoverishment). When Naomi returns to her home she tells the women that her name should not be Naomi, meaning pleasantness, but Marah, bitterness, “for Shaddai has made my lot very bitter” (Ruth 1:20).

But whereas the Book of Job looks for answers and seeks to understand why the righteous suffer, why a good God permits such injustice, entering into theological discourses, the Book of Ruth asks no such questions and never turns to God for answers or even for help. Rather the “answer” to human suffering that it offers is that human beings must help others in their time of trouble, as Ruth helps Naomi and as Boaz helps them both.

In Job, at the end his family is restored to him miraculously by God. In Ruth, Naomi’s family is restored to her by the birth of a son to Ruth and Boaz, a miracle of a different sort. Thus when Obed is born the women do not say, “A son has been born to Ruth,” but rather, “A son is born to Naomi!” (Ruth 4:17). The parallels between these two books are indeed startling.

Anyone interested in pursuing the question of why evil exists in this world should study Job. Anyone interested in knowing what we as human beings can do in view of the fact that human suffering does indeed exist, even for those who are righteous, should read Ruth and follow its way of hessed. That is Judaism’s answer to the problem of suffering.

The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.

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