The narrative of the Book of Ruth is poignant: one can almost feel the tragic atmosphere in the circle of three bereaved women, and hear the soft voice of young widow Ruth as she declared her loyalty to Naomi, to her land, her people and her God. With quiet presence and great strength, Ruth emerges as the hero who triggers a cascade of goodness beyond measure.
“Beyond measure” is the key here. Chessed is a word that defies precise English translation, as it also defies precise measurement. The distinguishing characteristic of chessed is kindness and goodness beyond measure, beyond what may be required, or different from what might appear to be required. Measurement is irrelevant to chessed; what seems to be a small act or word of kindness can have an immense impact.
Although chessed isn’t measurable, social scientists have succeeded in measuring its effects. Over the years, the accumulation of research on kindness, support and generosity provides a kind of numerical commentary to the Book of Ruth’s narrative truth that the performance of chessed heals both sides of the transaction. It benefits the giver along with the recipient and continues to spread generosity and kindness throughout the community.
We don’t know whether Ruth appreciated just how important her kindness felt to Naomi, but in general, acts of kindness mean more to the recipient than givers tend to realize. Amit Kumar at the University of Texas and Nicholas Eply of the University of Chicago found that people judged acts of kindness, such as bringing food to a sick person, based on the object they gave or action they were performing, but receivers focused on their feelings of warmth.
Givers were often quite clueless. They underestimated how deeply important the act of kindness was to the recipients.
Does chessed heal, as the Book of Ruth implies? Studies have long demonstrated that receiving kindness and social support improves psychological well-being; it can increase an individual’s sense of self-esteem, reduce feelings of depression and anxiety, and improve overall mental health and physical health. Social support lowers blood pressure, reduces the risk of heart disease and even boosts the immune system.
And chessed is a two-way street. The provider of kindness and support benefits, as well. People who volunteer and engage in other prosocial activities report higher levels of life satisfaction, lower stress, and better physical health than those who don’t.
The selflessness of Ruth
The Ruth story pivots around the reciprocity, mutuality, and spread of chessed – Ruth selflessly accompanies Naomi, who later helps Ruth find her way to Boaz, who then helps them both and through them paves the future of Israel.
This heart-warming positive and optimistic storyline describes a dynamic affirmed by research and experience. Acts of kindness and generosity are, indeed, contagious.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science demonstrated the domino effect in which one person’s generosity in the first experimental trial spread to three people in the second trial, nine in the third and so on in later waves of the experiment. This, as well as other studies, agree with the core story of Ruth in which a few good people can and do change the world.
Since Ruth is a biblical text, we’ll give God the last word. Although God is not mentioned prominently in Ruth, a large international study found that when people were asked to think about God, their kindness and generosity extended to others, regardless of identity. Prompted to think about God and what God wants led to greater generosity to members of other religious groups, as well as their own.
That’s what Ruth, Naomi and Boaz knew.
The author is a psychologist, writer, and radio and television commentator. Her work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, Psychology Today and The Washington Times. She also hosts a podcast, The Van Leer Institute Series on Ideas.