Bar- Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shavuot-- Parashat Naso / May 26-29, 2004

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar- Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

 

Ruth: On Welcoming the Stranger in our Midst [1]

 

Yonah Bar-Maoz

Department of Bible

 

The Book of Ruth portrays a painful social reality and harsh personal difficulties:  famine, bereavement, widowing and poverty, on the one hand; detachment, loneliness and loss of hope, on the other.  Several of these hardships were not in human hands, but others could have been prevented if only people had set their minds to doing so. [2]

 

Curiosity and gossip, which took no true interest in the object of the rumors, flourished in the fields and streets of Bethlehem; thus insensitivity and indifference took root as well.   When Ruth and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem, the entire city was abuzz, for Naomi was not just an anonymous woman who had gone off and returned; rather, her departure and return had a newsworthy impact, so that the entire community knew about it, down to the last detail.  This is seen from the words of the servant in charge of the reapers, who had no difficulty in identifying Ruth and said of her,

She is a Moabite girl who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab.   She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’  She has been on her feet ever since she came this morning.   She has rested but little in the hut (Ruth 2:6-7). [3]

When the novelty wore off, so did the interest.   The women of Bethlehem had said in amazement, “Can this be Naomi?” (1:19). But they suddenly disappear from the scene until the happy ending of the story, where once more they have something to say. Between the introduction and the conclusion not one of them so much as knocked on Naomi’s door to ask after her.   From Boaz we learn that he was well-informed even before we, the readers, meet him, and all the fascinating details had reached his ears:

 I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before (2:11).

 In chapter four of Ruth we learn that there were other relations close enough to refer to Naomi’s husband Elimelech as “our brother,” and they too were aware the entire time of our heroines’ presence in the city and of their condition.  Yet knowing all this did not lead to true concern for the surviving remnants of Elimelech’s family. One by one, the curious onlookers went back to their own business. Blessed oblivion spread a curtain of obscurity over the figures of these two unfortunate women, left to their own devices and forced to cope with the difficult challenges of survival with no one to help.

More serious than the lack of interest displayed by the townswomen and distant relatives was the case of Boaz, in view of the praise he showered on Ruth and his considerable economic capabilities.   Were it not for the chance encounter in his field, he would not have lifted a finger to help the two women who were his relatives.   Even after his meeting with Ruth he went off and forgot the young woman and her mother-in-law, having put the responsibility for Ruth’s well-being and reward on G-d:

May the Lord reward your deeds.   May you have a full recompense from the Lord, the G-d of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge! (2:12).

The way in which Boaz ignored his relative is especially striking against the setting of Naomi’s candid rejoicing at learning whom Ruth had met: 

Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, ‘Blessed be he of the Lord, who has not failed in His kindness to the living or to the dead!  For,’ [Naomi explained to her daughter-in-law] ‘the man is related to us; he is one of our redeeming kinsmen’ (2:20).

  Our disappointment with him increases with every day that passes without his actually doing anything to remedy the situation; and the time that went by was not brief:   Ruth gleaned in the field, under the burning hot sun, day after day, throughout the entire barley harvest and all through the wheat harvest; and as we learn from Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, from the beginning of the barley harvest to the end of the wheat harvest is three months. [4]   Afterwards she spent an unspecified length of time with her mother-in-law.  Had Naomi not acted as she did, even Boaz would not have taken positive action. [5]

The behavior of Naomi’s relatives and acquaintances is blameworthy, especially when compared to the behavior of others in a similar situation:  when tragedy hit Job he was visited and consoled by sympathetic friends, and his relatives spontaneously tried to rehabilitate him:  “All his brothers and sisters and all his former friends came to him and had a meal with him in his house.  They consoled and comforted him for all the misfortune that the Lord had brought upon him.   Each gave him one kesitah and each one gold ring” (Job 42:11).  But here the misfortunes of the woman who left with everything she could possibly want and was brought back empty-handed by the Lord are not sufficient to rouse the mercy of her relatives and do not help to assuage the shock of returning in such humiliation.

Of course we must not ignore the points that can be made in their favor:  the people of Bethlehem were not wicked.  Quite the contrary, they tended regularly to take into account those who were unfortunate, allowing needy persons to glean in their fields of grain without challenging them.   They even accepted strangers without harassment, and if we may generalize from Boaz’s behavior towards his reapers, we could even say that the relations between employer and employee in Bethlehem were quite good.  But ossification was beginning to set in and show its mark in several areas:   the attitude towards the outsider was one of tolerant ignoring; the women of Bethlehem who welcomed Naomi do not even see Ruth, as it says, “the whole city buzzed with excitement over them.   The women said, ‘Can this be Naomi?’”   The servant who was in charge of the reapers and who gives us the vantage point of the people, identified her as a Moabite girl who had come back with Naomi from the country of Moab, [6] and “forgot” that there was a family connection.  Only when the story takes a surprising turn in Ruth’s favor did the women remember that Ruth was Naomi’s daughter-in-law and that she was exceptional in her relations with her mother-in-law:   “And the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not withheld a redeemer from you today!   May his name be perpetuated in Israel!   He will renew your life and sustain your old age; for he is born of your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons’” (4:14-15).

The character who from the outset saw Ruth as more than simply a Moabite girl is Boaz, who praised the relationship she had with her mother-in-law.  However, as we already observed, he did not take further action even though he was aware that Ruth’s foreign nationality was a hindrance to her establishing social ties and that her socio-economic status was vulnerable.  His awareness of this is evident in the instructions he gave his workers:  “When she got up again to glean, Boaz gave orders to his workers, ‘You are not only to let her glean among the sheaves, without interference, but you must also pull some [stalks] out of the heaps and leave them for her to glean, and not scold her’” (2:15-16). 

His awareness is also seen in the way he presented Ruth as a Moabite, when stating the requirement that the other redeemer marry her:   “Boaz continued, ‘When you acquire the property from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabite you must also acquire the wife of the deceased, so as to perpetuate the name of the deceased upon his estate’” (4:5), as well as in the way he formulated his own declaration of intent to marry Ruth, “I am also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, as my wife,’” (4:10).   Boaz mentioned Ruth’s foreign origin since he knew that it was likely to be a factor that would prevent the marriage [to the other redeemer] and since he wished to make it perfectly clear that his marrying Ruth was not done under any misconceptions [which could later invalidate the marriage].

On behalf of the anonymous redeemer it must be said that he did not relate to Ruth’s origins, rather he said, “Then I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own estate.  You take over my right of redemption, for I am unable to exercise it” (4:5-6).   The Hebrew verb root sh-h-t which is used in his excuse, “lest I impair my own estate,” calls to mind the story of Tamar and Onan, where the same verb is used for the expression “go to waste”: 

But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, let it go to waste (shihet) whenever he joined with his brother’s wife, so as not to provide offspring for his brother (Gen. 38:8).

 It appears that the redeemer was refusing to waste his seed and impair his own estate on account of Ruth’s barrenness.  Since Ruth had been married ten years without bearing children, the chances were great that he, too, would not have children by her, and then the estate would slip out of his hands, just as the estate of Elimelech and Mahlon slipped entirely out of their hands because there was no one to perpetuate their name on their estate.

Ruth burst into this rigid, petrified world like a fresh wind, breaking conventions and admirably crossing old boundaries.   With true generosity, above and beyond what was expected by way of family loyalty, she worked to help Naomi, [7] both by accompanying her on her humiliating return trip to Israel and by supporting her economically when she went to glean in the fields of Bethlehem, as well as by obeying her absolutely and with complete trust, even in the face of the scandalous things Naomi suggested to her.  The example Ruth set deeply affected Boaz; her amazing appearance on the threshing floor in the middle of the night released him from the impassivity into which he had fallen, and he awoke to performing true acts of loving kindness. [8]

The greatest merit of Boaz, like that of his ancestor Judah, lay in his not holding a grudge towards the person who essentially reproved him for his negligent behavior, but rather in his praising that person with the very warmest of words: 

He exclaimed, ‘Be blessed of the Lord, daughter!  Your latest deed of loyalty is greater than the first, in that you have not turned to younger men, whether poor or rich’ (3:10).

Furthermore, Boaz could easily have shaken off his pangs of conscience.  All he had to do was to “remember” Ruth’s Moabite origin, for her enticing appearance in the threshing floor in the middle of the night bore a certain similarity to the behavior of the mother of all MoabLot’s daughter.  Boaz could have claimed in self-justification that he owed nothing to a woman who acted so waywardly, showing the heritage that had been passed down to her from her tainted background.  However Boaz, like Judah, said, “She has been more righteous than I,” and quickly took action to amend his mistaken ways; his extreme assiduousness in the end undoubtedly atones for his indifference in the beginning.

Ruth also had a beneficent effect on the other characters in the book.  Fresh vitality was instilled into relations of family, tribe and nation when Ruth was no longer viewed as a “Moabite girl,” but rather as “the woman who is coming into your house” (4:11) or as “Naomi’s daughter-in-law.”  The people of Bethlehem no longer kept to themselves, hiding each on their own estate; rather, they became more public-minded, paying respect to the elders who sat in the city gate, and they passed on their spiritual heritage to a new link in the long chain of the generations:  suddenly the matriarchs Rachel and Leah were “remembered,” as was Tamar, the mother of the tribe.  Nor did the women of Bethlehem remain anonymous and detached, rather they became “neighbors” who truly shared in Naomi’s joyous occasion.   In warmly and lovingly welcoming a stranger into their extended family, the people of Bethlehem benefited even more than the foreign woman herself.



[1] This article is dedicated to Dr. Gabriel Hayyim Cohn, fond of the Book of Ruth and devoted to interpreting it.

[2]This is apparently the backdrop to the legend that Elimelech left Bethlehem to avoid having to help the needy:  Elimelech was one of the wealthy men of the times and a leader of the country.   When years of famine came, he said:   Now all Israel crowd around me, each with his hand out.  So, he got up and left” (Ruth Rabbah 1).   This attests to the social atmosphere in the Book of Ruth; the sorry state of Naomi and Ruth upon their return reflects the principle of measure for measure.

[3] On the role of supporting characters in proving the general rule, see the article in the appendix in Uriel   Simon, Reading Prophetic Narratives,  trans. from the Hebrew by Lenn J. Schramm (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1997).

[4] Ruth Rabbah 5.

[5] Nor would he have deserved the description given him in the Book of Ruth as “a man of substance” (2:1), and a “man will not rest, but will settle the matter today” (3:18).

[6] Moab is mentioned fourteen times in the Book of Ruth.

[7] Ruth’s behavior was exceptional in every respect, in comparison to Orpah.   The latter also acted above and beyond the call of duty when she remained with her mother-in-law and was even willing to accompany her back to her own country, for the social norm was that a widowed woman who had no children returned to her father’s house.   This practice is evident in Judah’s words to Tamar:  “Stay as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up” (Gen. 38:11), and in the instructions given the daughter of a priest:   “but if the priest’s daughter is widowed or divorced and without offspring, and is back in her father’s house as in her youth, she may eat of her father’s food” (Lev. 22:13).   From Naomi’s words to her daughters-in-law it is clear that this was also the norm in Moab, for in 1:8 Naomi, bereaved of her sons and childless, sends her daughters-in-law back to their mothers’ homes. 

[8] This trait was actually inherited from his ancestor Abraham, who never forgot that Lot was his kinsman and risked his life to rescue him even after their ways had parted.  But a descendant of Lot had to arise in order to remind Boaz of this spiritual heritage.