The hidden ‘rut’ of redemption

While Ruth is indeed impressive and inspirational, she is not the true heroine of this book; that honor is reserved for Naomi.

June 5, 2019 21:40
4 minute read.
The hidden ‘rut’ of redemption

‘HUMBLED AND humiliated, Naomi sends Ruth to the fields to beg for sustenance – and there the fate of both these remarkable women takes a turn for the better.’. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Among the highlights of Shavuot – along with chocolate mint cheesecake and battling to stay awake during all-night study sessions – is the reading of the book of Ruth.

Commentators have long grappled with the rationale of linking this compelling story to Shavuot, and their approaches are many: The narrative takes place in the harvest season, which is associated agriculturally with Shavuot; Ruth came to embrace the fullness of Jewish law – her name, numerically, equals 606 and so by adding the seven Noahide commandments incumbent upon all faiths, she reaches 613, the number of mitzvot in the Torah; Ruth’s saga epitomizes the virtue of hessed, kindness toward others, which is the first of the seven personality traits traditionally emphasized in the counting of the Omer in the progression from Passover to Shavuot.

Ruth fittingly joins the worthy company of other long-suffering, outstanding women of virtue in Jewish history: Sara, who waited almost a century to bear a child; Rebecca, who orchestrated Jacob’s acquisition of the birthright, and then died alone; and Rachel, who magnanimously allows her sister Leah to marry Jacob, only to perish at a young age in childbirth. Ruth’s odyssey from Moabite princess to beggar to ancestress of the Messiah is surely an uplifting story for the ages.

But I want to suggest that while Ruth is indeed impressive and inspirational, she is not the true heroine of this book; that auspicious honor is reserved for Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law. Naomi’s long and arduous journey takes her, literally, from riches to rags and back to royalty once again. She hails from a noble family, descended from Nahshon, the prince of the tribe of Judah whose famous leap into the Reed Sea, by tradition, enabled the most popular miracle in human history. Her husband, Elimelech, was a man of vast wealth and notoriety, and they lived in the lap of luxury.

But Naomi’s fortune – literally and figuratively – rapidly goes south. The family selfishly deserts a famine-stricken Israel for Moav – a perennial enemy of the Jewish people. Elimelech dies, as do their two sons, having married Moabite women, and Naomi is left bereft and penniless. As she confronts the loss of her wealth, her family, her good name and her self-respect, she is overwhelmed with hopelessness. “Do not call me ‘Naomi – pleasant,’” she cries despondently, “but rather ‘Mara’ – the bitter one.”

Yet having reached this low ebb of life, Naomi makes a courageous decision: she will return to her people and to her land. She has lost everything – except her faith. With Ruth by her side, she comes back to Bethlehem, and is forced to endure the scorn of the townspeople, “Is this ragged old lady the same princess Naomi we once knew?!” they say, with a mix of wonder and scorn, “and is this her gentile daughter-in-law?” Humbled and humiliated, she sends Ruth to the fields to beg for sustenance, and there the fate of both these remarkable women takes a turn for the better. Ruth encounters Boaz, Naomi’s relative, and chemistry is created; later, at midnight, they will rendezvous at the threshing-floor and a most unlikely union will take place, ultimately leading to the birth of King David and the Messiah.

While Ruth is the prime protagonist in the story, she clearly is Naomi’s surrogate. Naomi guides Ruth every step of the way, and acts through Ruth to effect her own rehabilitation. The text dramatically reveals to us what is happening here: While the verbs are read as if Ruth is the one acting at Naomi’s behest, the written text is all in first-person form, with Naomi, and not Ruth, as the actor; “I will dress; I will go to the threshing-floor, I will lie down (with Boaz).” To bring this message conclusively home, when a child is born, the megillah records (4:17), “And the neighbors declared, ‘A son has been born to Naomi!’”

Naomi, at long last, has achieved redemption. She has come full circle and has regained her good name, her dignity, her future, her self-respect and her place in history.

And now we better understand the clear connection between this moral tale and Shavuot. We had descended to an abysmally low status in Egypt – our wealth, which was considerable, our freedom, our self-confidence as proud and practicing Jews was gone. We had nothing – except our faith. We clung tenaciously to that faith, and we followed God, until we finally reached Mount Sinai. Though we did not climb that mountain physically, we scaled the heights emotionally and spiritually, until we merited receiving God’s greatest and most priceless treasure, the Torah.

Jewish life, you see, is all about the search for redemption, about coming back and coming home. When we are in the womb, says the famous midrash, the angels teach us Torah, but that knowledge is taken away from us at birth, and we must then struggle a lifetime to regain it. Man and woman, by tradition, were created as one composite being, but then were separated, and so each of us must search the world to find our soul mate once again. We were given the land of Israel and Jerusalem, but, tragically, twice we lost it, and have prayed and sacrificed and worked tirelessly for centuries to finally, miraculously reacquire it.

That is the endless cycle of loss, effort and eventual triumph that characterizes our nation. Naomi is the light, the beacon that says to us, “Never give up! Never despair!” She shows us the way to greatness, to glory, and to the ultimate redemption that is our inescapable destiny.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.

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