By Benjy Singer
There is no more of a human story in Tanach, than that of Ruth. Indeed, the story of Ruth is in stark contrast to what Peter Berger would call, the ‘religious ecstasy’ of Maamad Har Sinai, which seems such a spiritually charged event, filled with ‘Ahavat’ and ‘Yirat’ Hashem. I see parallels between the way the Tanach describes Ruth and how it describes other characters, such as Esther, Channah, and Yitzchak, as I will mention.
The themes we find in Megillat Ruth include: death, illness, self-sacrifice, chessed, the search for and loss of love, dependency on others, Teshuva, redemption, jealousy, poverty, fraught family relationships, yearning for children and continuity, and being torn between being part of a collective nation and family and at the same time being an individual, and becoming detached from ones upbringing and roots.
There is another major theme that many overlook, maybe because they themselves have never experienced it and are therefore not sensitive to it. That is, the difficult and painful journey that defined and typified Ruth’s life, as she went from being an outsider to an insider, from being rejected to being accepted – or maybe as I will conclude, she never actually becomes an insider, she is never really accepted. But, does that matter? Maybe, she fulfills her ‘Yiud’, her destiny and role in life, without actually ever achieving the acceptance she yearns for.
We can see the journey that Ruth takes is symbolized and expressed by the names she is given in the Megillah. Interestingly enough, names are used in this Megilah in the context of Naomi too, to describe her state of mind and how she wants to be perceived/ is perceived by others. For instance, in 1: 20, when Naomi says, ‘Don’t call me Naomi, but Mara, as Hashem has dealt harshly with me and brought me misfortune’.
Ruth has multiple names, and the names reflect how she perceives herself and how others perceive her – sadly there is often dissonance and disparity between the two. Ruth wants to be the insider, she wants to be included and treated like everyone else. Despite the fact that she has a different mentality, has a different mother tongue and speaks with an accent, she wants to be respected for the decisions she has made and loops she had to jumped through, but instead is often misunderstood and not treated with the sensitivity and respect she deserves, continually being reminded of her past and how she is different and not ‘one of us’.
Living in a society that is so different to the one she grew up in and is familiar with, is not easy for her and gets no easier. As a result, she lives in poverty and has given up the financial stability and wealth she may have enjoyed had she not made the move and thrown in her lot with Am Yisrael.
It is interesting to see her names and who calls her by them – the names they choose reflect their relationship with her and how they perceive her. For instance, the Megillah in several places, describes Ruth as Naomi’s ‘daughter in law’, but Naomi herself calls Ruth, ‘my daughter’ showing the closeness that Naomi feels, which is not shared by the narrator of the Megillah.
In 2:5, Boaz initially calls Ruth a ‘Naara’ – a girl, focusing on her appearance and youth, also implying anonymity and lack of clear identity and distinctness, as Esther was anonymously describes in the first few perakim of Megilat Esther. In the next pasuk, the ‘Kotzrim’- the reapers respond, ‘She is a Moabite girl’ – in other words, not only is she an anonymous ‘naara’ with no obvious and defined identity, they go one step further – she is not one of us at all – she is different, she does not belong. They did not bother to find out who she really was and have no idea of the mesirut nefesh and personal sacrifices she has made – if only they did! They make her an outsider, even though all she wants is to be included and accepted. Nothing more than that. Are Ruth’s wishes and expectations so unreasonable and far-fetched?
Then, in 2:8, once Boaz begins to find out about Ruth and is attracted to her, he calls her ‘Biti’- my daughter – he sees her as a person, not just an object – the question is, what are his intentions? Is it physical attraction, being with a woman so much younger than him, or it is chessed. Chazal, of course say chessed and rachmanut. After all Boaz was from Shevet Yehudah and he was related to Elimelech. Naomi sees Boaz, as a means through which Malchut Yehudah could continue. Hence, Naomi encourages Ruth to look attractive, for when Boaz sees her. So, therefore, say Chazal, the intentions of Boaz are pure – he wants to carry on the family and have children with Ruth. Finally in 2:11-13, Ruth begins to get the acceptance she deserves, but again, it is unclear as to the motivation of Boaz – are they genuine, or is he just infatuated by this ‘Naarah’? Still, according to the plain meaning of the text, there is nothing to say that what motivated Boaz was physically attraction. Indeed, Ruth is the one at the beginning of perek 3, who attracts Boaz, not the other way round.
Again though, the narrator of the Megillah, in 2:20 and then in 2:22, describes Ruth when communicating with Naomi as a ‘daughter-in-law’, but then describes her in 2:21, as Ruth ‘the Moabite’ – again taking her back and reminding her of her roots and where she came from. In the context of Naomi, she is a daughter, in the context of Boaz, she is the ‘Naara’ and ‘Biti’, in the context of the narrator of the Megillah she is a daughter in law. The reapers are the worst and call her the ‘the Moabite’. They make no effort to find out about her and whom she really is, and instead focus on the external.
Again, in 3:1, Naomi is described as Ruth’s mother in law – on the one hand not her mother, as Ruth really sees her, as implied by the continuation of the pasuk there, when Ruth is described as ‘daughter’. On the other hand, at least 3:1, dosen’t just call Ruth, ‘the Moabite’ or the ‘Naara’, as she was by Boaz and the reapers. Again in 3:6, Naomi is described as her mother in law-as the narrator calls her consistently – a kind of midway between being the daughter, who Ruth wants to be, and a ‘Moabite’ or ‘Naara’, as she was described by Boaz and the reapers.
Then we see in 3:9, that Ruth describes herself in a way that we have not seen yet – ‘Ruth Amatecha’ – Ruth your handmade. I understand that Boaz is a very important figure in society, but why the need for her to present herself in such a self-effacing way, especially after what she has been through? After she has demonstrated so much mesirut nefesh and dedication – she just sees herself as a handmade! Why does she perceive herself like that? Why is she so modest and desperate? What has happened to her self-esteem and self-respect? I think it is a result of the journey she is going through and being made to feel like an outsider and misfit, by Boaz (initially), the reapers (throughout) and the narrator of the story – they did not share Naomi’s sensitivity.
Then, how does Boaz respond – in 3:10 and then in 3:11? He calls her ‘My daughter’. Then in 3:11, he calls her, an ‘Ashet Chayil’. Again, according to the pshat, his motives and intentions are-chessed, rachmanut. Although one could suggest he is also trying to lure her on, as presumably this much younger woman, this ‘Naara’, attracts him.
Again, as in 3:1, in 3:16, Naomi calls Ruth, her daughter-at least Naomi is responding in kind to Ruth’s struggles and dedication.
If we read further, the names that Ruth gets continue to change, reflecting how she is never really understood or respected as she deserves-causing her to have an identity crisis. I am sure had she been treated differently, she would not have had this identity crisis.
In 4:5, the narrator describes her as ‘Ruth Ha’Moaviyah’ and then again in 4:10, when Boaz is speaking about Ruth in a more formal and legal setting. In stark contrast to the affectionate and personal names Boaz calls Ruth in perek 2 – ‘Biti’, here in 4:10, he calls her 3 things: ‘Ruth Ha’Moaviya’, ‘Ayshet Machlon’ and ‘Isha’. Again, In 4:11 Ruth is referred to as ‘Ha’Isha’ – my wife. Still impersonal and distance, implying anonymity and coldness. Boaz could have been more personal and affectionate and called her ‘Ruth, Ishti’. Again the narrator, describes Ruth as ‘Isha’ – his wife.
Then in 4:15, the women say to Naomi, on the one hand Ruth is her daughter on law, but on the other hand, she ‘loves you and is better to you than seven sons’. One cannot compare the warmth and sensitivity of these women who knew what motivated Ruth, with the reapers who just saw Ruth as the ‘Moaviyah’ – the Moabite or as Boaz at times described her, as the ‘Naara’, ‘Ruth Ha’moaviyah’, ‘Ayshet Machlon’, or ‘Isha’.
It is interesting at the end of the Megillah, Naomi and David are mentioned, but Ruth is not. Naomi is the one who is described as the grandmother of David, and Ruth is hardly mentioned with regard to her baby. Maybe like Yitzchak in chumash, Ruth is a ‘tzinor’, a funnel, a channel connecting Naomi and David, like Yitzchak who was a funnel, a channel connecting Avraham and Yaakov.
Ruth starts and ends the Megillah in anonymity. However, does that matter? I would like to argue no. Rav Soloveichik said, that great leaders in Jewish history often vanish off the scene, once they have fulfilled their ‘Yiud’, their destiny and role – Ruth vanished. She never achieves full acceptance and as we see from the names she is given at the end by the reapers, she remains an outsider. However, despite this and the rejection she goes through, she fulfills her destiny and purpose in life. Maybe it even makes her stronger and makes her more driven.
I always see in the way how Ruth is ‘Mvater’, gives up, her son to Naomi, as paralleled to how Channah is willing to give up her son, Shmuel. Both waited years for a child and both were willing to give the son they had waited so long for, to a higher, spiritual cause – the ultimate act of mesirut nefesh and dedication to Hashem.
To conclude, as demonstrated by the names Ruth is given, she goes through a lot in her spiritual journey. I am not sure if she ever is truly accepted. Despite this, she is rewarded for her dedication and passion – her great grandson is David Hamelech. Her role, as Boaz sees it, is to continue Malchut Bet David – that is at least how Chazal see the relationship between Boaz and Ruth. That is why the Midrash says, that Boaz dies the day after they conceive David.
On Shavuot, which is a time of celebrating Matan Torah and our covenantal relationship with G-d, we should also spend time thinking about the very human story of Ruth and all the themes that are included in her journey.
Especially here in Israel, we are surrounded by Jews who maybe going through what Ruth went through to varying extents. We need to realize that each and every one of us has the capacity and potential to change their lives and empower them, to become independent and self-sufficient. Which, according to the Rambam, is the highest form of Tzedakah.
Megilat Ruth is also the cry for Chessed, for kindness, and the need for help. We need to be sensitive to the cry of people around us in our community and always be ready to help however we can.
Originally appears on IsraelK.org