“Don’t be caught Ruthless!” Book of Ruth, Part 1

The centrality of women as they feature in the 5 Megillos is impossible to ignore and speaks volumes about the role of women in Hashem’s greater scheme.  The five books are Esther, Ruth, Song of Songs (a love song between a man and a woman representing the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people), and Eicha (the other side of that same coin, being the lamentation when the woman is exiled and sent away from her beloved as was the case with the destruction of the 2 batei mikdash/temples).  (Koheles, the fifth megilla, Ecclesiastes is a bit harder to see the feminine connection, but then again, it is a different sort of Megilla to the others in many ways too.)

As I am doing my best to peel back the layers of Pardes – pshat/surface meaning, remez/hinted meaning, drash/deeper meaning and sod/secret meaning of the book of Ruth, I found myself scratching my head trying to make sense out of its very essence and seminal theme.

R Zeira of the Midrash says;

 מגילה זאת אין בה לא טומאה ולא טהרה לא איסור ולא התר למה נכתבה? ללמדך כמה שכר טוב לגומלי חסדים – “This scroll, contains no laws of purity and impurity, permitted and forbidden, so why was it written?  Only to teach us the reward for those who do loving-kindness.”

So, there we have it – the mission statement so to speak, the reason d’etre of this holy scroll.

And not only does this teaching of loving-kindness animate its existence and inclusion in our 24 books of Tanach, but it is the one that is read on Shavuos, the holiday in which we receive the Torah in its entirety.  Why?  We will borrow a verse from the Aishes Chayil poem, the Ode to the Jewish woman; (Actually, the whole poem says Rashi refers to the Torah not the woman!  The Woman is the mashal/analogy for the Torah itself!)

“ותורת חסד על לשונה” – “A Torah of kindness is on her tongue.”

A Torah that is not kind is not really Torah.  That is why on the day that we receive the laws about purity and impurity, Kosher and unkosher, permitted and forbidden, we read the Book of Ruth.


At the opening of the story Elimelech, the philanthropist and spiritual leader of the generation flees the knocks-on-his-door for desperate help during the G-d-sent famine that was ravaging the land. Rashi comments that he was the unfortunate owner of the sorry trait of miserliness, ( צרות עין in Hebrew). They escape to Moav, the land of a people that was forbidden to marry into the Jewish people because of their distinct deficit of precisely this trait of kindness.  (The Torah tells us that the acceptance of converts from Moav is forbidden because they failed to meet us with refreshments on our exodus from Egypt into their land. על דבר אשר לא קדמו אשכם בלחם ובמים.  In fact, the 3 tell-tale signs of a Jew no matter how far he may have strayed from observance is that he is a ביישן, רחמן,  and a גומל חסד, someone with modesty, compassion and who does loving-kindness.)  Perhaps it was this resonance of a certain selfishness of the man and the nation that drew Elimelech to choose Moav as his hiatus.

Hashem punishes Elimelech for his sin which was an expression of this unforgivable flaw (in a Jew) with death.  His two sons, Machlon and Kilyon, spend the next ten years in Moav and marry Moabite princesses.  After this grace period in which Hashem hoped they would repent and find their way back to their home land, they too lose their lives.  Naomi, the previously bereft wife and now bereft mother, decides to make her own way back to the holy land when she hears the news that the famine had ended, this time destitute and forlorn.  Her two new daughters-in law, Ruth and Orpah, insist of accompanying her back to her G-d and her people, despite her bitter turn of fate.

It is here that the demonstration of kindness begins to emerge in its most positive sense.  Naomi encourages her daughters-in law to return to their Moabite legacies and blesses them; יעש ד’ עמכם חסד כאשר עשיתם עם המתים ועמדי – “May Hashem do Kindness unto you as you have done with the dead (organizing their burial shrouds according the Jewish law, a final kindness) and with me (by accompanying me).” The conversation ensues with Ruth pulling through in her commitment to accompany her mother in law all the way home and Orpah taking her leave to return to her people with nothing more than a parting kiss. (The midrash says that on the very night of her return to Moav, she performed the most lewd and debased acts of immorality.  Ruth, on the other hand, arrives in Beis Lechem fully believing that because she was a Moabitess, she would never be able to marry.  Her faith and love of Hashem surpassed the arguments of logic telling her that this move made no sense for her. Little did she know that the halachic ruling that only MEN from moav were prohibited from coming into the Jewish people through marriage, but not women.  (The reason for this is that Hashem had never expected the Moabite women to leave their homes to offer supplies to the fleeing Jewish refugees as it undermined the virtue of modesty.) But all this is only made known to her later in the story, and demonstrate that those who have faith in Hashem never lose in the long run.  Not only did she marry but she married the spiritual leader of the generation, Boaz the shofet/judge, and conceived the grandfather of David HaMelech, father of the moshiach.

Sure enough, Ruth continues her expression of care and devotion to her mother in law (let me repeat that, her MOTHER IN LAW 😊) and refuses to let her take advantage of the laws of leket and shich’cha, the law which states that forgotten and fallen sheaves of wheat must be left for the nation’s poor.  Instead, she herself goes to collect in the fields of Boaz.  It is there that Boaz notices her due to her characteristic modesty (one of the other traits of a Jew) and treats her with tremendous kindness and care.  Our theme deepens.

Fast forward a few months till the end of the harvesting season.  Boaz is sleeping in his granary to protect the final produce of the agricultural term’s end. Naomi informs Ruth that in fact Boaz is a relative and therefore a legitimate contestant for the sacred act of yibum, the practice of marrying the closest relative of the deceased in order to carry on his seed, in this case, Ruth’s late husband and Naomi’s son, Machlon. The modest and selfless Ruth follows her mother-in-laws instruction and sneaks into the granary in the middle of the night with a faith that is immeasurable that Hashem would help her perform this holy mitzvah. When Boaz discovers her and recognizes her as the righteous convert from the field, he says to her הטבת חסדך האחרון מן הראשון – “your latter kindness supersedes your former one” – meaning, the kindness you have demonstrated to your mother-in-law, Naomi – his relative – pales in comparison with the kindness of Yibum, pro-generating the line of her deceased husband.

Boaz decides that although he had recently been widowed of his wife (he was in fact 80 years old, whereas Ruth was a much younger 40) and was now secluded in the dark of night with a beautiful and righteous woman, there was another relative that was indeed closer to the family than himself.  (He was the son of a brother, but there was another brother – טוב – who accordingly to Jewish law, should have the option first. In fact, this is the reason why Naomi instructed Ruth to approach him in this dubious manner, as Tov was no where near as great as Boaz.)

The following day, in broad daylight, Tov declines the hand of Ruth in marriage as he is afraid that her Moabite past will damage his image. They perform the chalitza ritual where the ties of Yibum are broken and Ruth and Boaz are free to marry with the blessings and celebrations of everyone around.

The Megilla concludes with the lineage that ensues from their holy union, backtracking to Peretz, the son of Tamar and Yehuda and leading up to David HaMelech.  The story of courage, of kindness, of faith and of modesty as it was recorded in this window is complete.


And yet, I was disturbed.  With all these messages of Kindness, its importnance, its power and its reward, which is the very reason why the megillah was recorded and why it is read on Shavuos, there was something not sitting well. 

We are kind because Hashem is kind. That’s where we get it from, through Avraham, who embodied the attribute of Hashem’s endless loving-kindness.

And yet, in the story, Hashem doesn’t seem kind!

The outstanding characteristic of kindness shines out because the backdrop is dark.  There is famine, death, loss and grief.  People are being punished for their flaws and sins, collectively and individually.  Naomi left Israel an aristocratic woman only to return a broken soul with a shadow of her former glory.  And yet, the protagonists never indict Hashem, only see the harshness of the world around them as a reflector of their own failings, knowing unfailingly that Hashem is always good and is always doing the kindest thing possible.

But still, how do we understand it? It’s almost as if Hashem is saying; do as I say, and not as I do.  Be kind.  Why is the book of Ruth the platform for this lesson when in fact the actual story is a tale of pathos and lament, trial and tragedy?

Why this juxtaposition?  The contrast is too stark to ignore.  What is going on on a deeper level?

Luckily, at the very end of the scroll, when the story had reached its closure and still this question lingered in my heart, I started reading the commentary of the Vilna Goan, the Gra.  What a sweet feeling when the greats ask your question.  And answer it. In order to understand what was going on beneath the surface, it is necessary to tap into the mystical tradition that accompanies all the other levels of the story.  The Vilna Goan will speak in part 2.