Threshing Floor Challenge (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 4, June 10, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot, June 9 The Book of Ruth is a story of hessed, lovingkindness, between Naomi, Ruth and Boaz, a lovingkindness so boundless and genuine that it seems a natural propensity shared by all three main characters. But in truth, they all go through an initial distancing and a challenge, and only then does empathic identifying occur. Consider Naomi and Ruth. Returning to Bethlehem destitute, having lost husband and sons, Naomi wants to be alone. She tries to throw off her daughters-in-law, arguing, "Do I have other sons in my womb to be your husbands?" Orpah goes, but Ruth inexplicably "clings to her" and declares "Whither thou goest, I go…" Ruth identifies with Naomi, who demonstrates no return of love; seeing that Ruth won't leave, Naomi "stops speaking to her." "The two walk" but not, as with Abraham and Isaac, "together" (Genesis 22:8). Naomi, reaching home, tells her greeters that her name is no longer Naomi, or "pleasantness," but is now Mara, "bitterness," caused by God. "I left full and now empty I have returned …" - an oblique and alienating insult directed at the loyal Ruth, the forbidden Moabite, standing by her side. The wealthy, powerful Boaz offers comfort the moment he first meets Ruth, who gleans in his field, sparing her previously prosperous mother in law the embarrassment of poverty. Recognizing Ruth's dedication to Naomi, Boaz validates her hessed and offers her food and drink and lets her gather grain, protected from harassment. His beautiful words read as a balm to a desperate foreign widow burdened with a depressed and distant mother-in-law: "May the Lord pay your due and may your reward be full from the Lord, God of Israel, that you have sought shelter under His wing." Yet, the emptiness of Boaz's words was made evident to us several years ago when, as a faculty couple at a Los Angeles yeshiva, we had a student who was a refugee from an anti-Semitic Middle Eastern country. When the student finally contacted his uncle who had fled their country many years earlier and was now a wealthy Beverly Hills businessman, the uncle praised God and wished God's blessing on his him, but except for some pocket money would do nothing to help his destitute nephew. When Ruth returns from gleaning with more grain and food than Naomi expected, her response - "Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be he who took such notice of you" - could be read as Naomi's moving from suspicion and depression to acknowledgment that her fate is linked to her daughter-in-law's. Naomi knows what Ruth, as a newcomer to the land does not know: that as a relative, Boaz is a potential husband for Ruth. Rabbi Daniel Landes is director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Sheryl Robbin is a writer and social worker. They are married and live with their family in Jerusalem. Extract from an article in Issue 4, June 10, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.