Ruth: Its message and significance for our lives.
The book of Ruth has great universal appeal. On the surface, it is the story of a young virtuous maiden who leaves her family and her nation to cast her lot with a people and religion that she has not previously known. Her purity of thought, noble behavior and charming character gain her the role of the progenitor of a royal dynasty. A reader identifies with the risk that she took, is impressed by her dignity and refined bearing, and is drawn to her purity and strength of faith. The book of Ruth leaves one with a sense of optimism, hope, and trust, and a feeling of fulfillment and completion.
There is; however, much, much more to the story of Ruth, for it is first and foremost a story of redemption and restoration. It is precisely this element, at times explicitly identified, at other times only dimly surmised, that tugs at our heartstrings and awakens that sense of identification and relevance to our own individual and personal lives, our own struggles with alienation and despair, our own longing and search for restoration. We take Ruth personally because on some level we sense that it is our own story. We also long to transition out of the foreign land to the place of greater purpose and serene trust. We, like Ruth, have traveled away from our Father (in Hebrew Mo Ab). Like her, we long to return to the Land of promise. The book of Ruth teaches us that personal redemption must occur within a family, community, and nation. No man is an island. We are nurtured and shaped by our families, national identities and cultural backgrounds. These are personal limitations but we can approach Him together with others. Ruth became the ancestor of kings because she gave kindness and devotion to others. The way is not out of Moab but into Judea; not by leaving society behind but by joining in, and the means to redemption is kindness. R. Zeirah said: “This scroll contains neither laws of purity or impurity, neither what is permitted or forbidden. Why was it written? To teach the reward of those who deal kindly with others (Yalkut Shimoni Ruth 601).”
Ruth, as we said, is a story of redemption; however, it is a complex story, within which can be discerned three interconnected cycles. The first is the seed of Elimelech returning to his people. He and his sons left his nation but his widow, daughter-in-law and their progeny return. The second circle that is closed is the return of the prodigal daughter of Lot to her rightful position in the family of Abraham. Lot’s branch of the family descended into licentiousness and carnality (see Genesis 19). Thus, it separated itself from Abraham’s messianic destiny for humanity. Through Ruth and David it now came back to rejoin it. This return, like all returns, was not easy and required struggle. Traces of their Moabite heritage were a stumbling block for David and Solomon. Their task was to wholly purify themselves from the daughters of Lot within. Solomon married many wives and they turned his heart away from Hashem. Moabite lust destroyed the lives of David’s other descendants: Adonijah, Amnon, and Absalom. David himself was tested in trials of Michal, Abigail and, of course, Bathsheba. Knowing his background, we can appreciate his ultimate success in overcoming temptation even more.
Another lesson that this book teaches us – redemption requires separation. Ruth kissed Naomi and went with her to her future but Orpah kissed her and turned back to her past. The Sages tell us that that very night she again became Lot’s daughter. A hundred men impregnated her and out of that seed came Goliath who faced David upon the fateful field of battle.
We face choices every day of our lives and these choices have consequences. We reclaim and redeem but we also must reject; this is not an easy process and there are many pitfalls. God assists man in this daily struggle but it is largely up to us. No amount of Divine assistance can allow us to escape the duty to face the truth that we already know but the heart reveals not to the mind. Before redemption comes separation of good from evil, of that which must be redeemed from that which must be rejected and abandoned.
The third element is the Messianic redemption for David, which stands at the fulcrum of history. Mystics teach us that the three phonemes of Adam stand for the three stages of human history – A for Adam, D for David and M for Messiah. The redemption of Ruth is thus a parable for the entire panorama of human history and this element is not far from the surface of this book.
The book of Ruth must be approached differently than the book of Jonah that we just merited to have competed. Whereas there are few traditional commentaries on Jonah, we are fortunate to possess a number of Midrashic works on Ruth. Our task, therefore, will be less to innovate than to uncover the profound wisdom of the Sages who spoke in parables and allusions. The fountain of living truth has not ceased and we must draw from it. Our study of Ruth will therefore be an opportunity to learn how to extract from the deep wellsprings of Rabbinic literature. I hope that as I attempt to draw up these deep and living waters, you, dear readers, will come to be impressed by the wisdom and righteousness of the Rabbanim, as much as I repeatedly continue to be.
Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin lives in Monsey, NY and is on the faculty of Ohr- Someach Tannenbaum Educational Institutions. He studied under R. Joseph Dov Soloveitchik and R. Shneur Kotler. A former pulpit rabbi, he is the author of Novarodok: The Movement that Lived in Struggle and its Unique Approach to the Problem of Man (Jason Aronson, New Jersey 1996) and With All Your Heart: The Shema in Jewish Liturgy, Worship and Life (Targum/Feldheim, Jerusalem, 2002).