Category Archives: Shavuot

Boaz Asleep, Victor Hugo

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Boaz, overcome with weariness, by torchlight
made his pallet on the threshing floor 
where all day he had worked, and now he slept 
among the bushels of threshed wheat.

The old man owned wheatfields and barley, 
and though he was rich, he was still fair-minded. 
No filth soured the sweetness of his well. 
No hot iron of torture whitened in his forge.

His beard was silver as a brook in April. 
He bound sheaves without the strain of hate 
or envy. He saw gleaners pass, and said, 
Let handfuls of the fat ears fall to them.

The man's mind, clear of untoward feeling, 
clothed itself in candor. He wore clean robes. 
His heaped granaries spilled over always 
toward the poor, no less than public fountains.

Boaz did well by his workers and by kinsmen. 
He was generous, and moderate. Women held him 
worthier than younger men, for youth is handsome, 
but to him in his old age came greatness.

An old man, nearing his first source, may find 
the timelessness beyond times of trouble. 
And though fire burned in young men's eyes, 
to Ruth the eyes of Boaz shone clear light.

* * *

So, Boaz slept among his heaps of grain
in darkness, as among the ruins of summer.
Reapers sprawled nearby like fallen troops.
And this took place in very ancient times.

Then, judges led the tribes of Israel. 
People wandering with tents as herdsmen saw 
the footprints left by giants where the earth 
was soft still from the waters of the flood.

* * *

As Jacob slept, as Judith slept, 
so now did Boaz on his threshing floor, 
while overhead a door came open, and a dream 
fell from the sky into the old man's mind:

he saw a live oak grow out of his belly 
far up into the blue; and many people 
climbed it in a long chain, while a king sat 
singing at the root, and a god died at the crown.

And Boaz murmured, sleeping, 
in his soul: Could this come forth 
from me, past eighty? Still, 
I have no son. I have no wife.

The one who shared my bed, Lord! years ago, 
you took from my house into yours, 
though she and I are yet one soul--hers 
half-alive in me and mine half-dead in her.

And shall a nation come from this ruined flesh? 
Shall I now have a child? I might believe it, 
young, when I could still see mornings 
rise out of the night as if in triumph.

Now, I tremble like a birch in winter. 
Old, a widower, alone at nightfall,
I have turned my soul to face the grave, 
an old ox turned by thirst down to the river.

So said Boaz in his dream, his ecstasy still 
turning him toward God, eyes blurred with sleep. 
The cedar does not feel the rose bloom at its root, 
and Boaz did not feel, at his feet, the young woman.

* * *

Ruth, a Moabite, had come while Boaz slept, 
and now lay at his feet, who knows what light 
from what door in the heavens finding her breast 
naked, tender to its stirring as his dreams.

But Boaz did not know Ruth came to him, 
and Ruth did not know what God asked of her. 
The night breathed out a freshness from wild 
clumps of asphodels over the hills of Judah.

The dark was nuptial, and august, and solemn. 
Hidden angels must have hovered over them, 
for Ruth saw in the night sky, here and there, 
a dark blue movement like a wing.

The breath of Boaz sleeping mixed 
with a dull hush of brookwater in the moss. 
It was the time of year when lilies open 
and let go their sweetness on the hills.

Ruth was dreaming. Boaz slept. The grass looked black. 
And little bells of sheep were trembling on the verge 
of silence. Goodness came down clear as starlight 
into the great calm where the lions go to drink.

All slept, all, from Ur to Bethlehem. 
The stars enameled the deep black of the sky. 
A narrow crescent in the low dark 
of the west shone, while Ruth wondered,

lying still now, eyes half opened,
under twinging of their lids, what god 
of the eternal summer passing dropped
his golden scythe there in that field of stars.

Recognition in the Book of Ruth, Dr Rachel Adelman

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Recognition in the Book of Ruth
by Dr. Rachel Adelman

A graduate of Matan’s M.A. Program in Tanakh, Rachel Adelman went on to complete her PhD in Hebrew Literature (with a specialty in midrash) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She currently teaches Tanakh and Midrash at Matan in Jerusalem, and lectures widely in North America and England. In the fall of 2009, her first book – The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha – was published by Brill. She is currently working on her second: The Female Ruse – Women’s Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible. Next year, she will be a Research Associate in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard University.

The Book of Ruth, I maintain, is the greatest love story in the Tanakh; the most eloquent expression of love is imbedded within the first chapter.

For wherever you go, I will go;
Wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God my God.
Where you die, I will die,
And there I will be buried.
Thus and more may the LORD do to me
If anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17, NJPS)

 

An adaptation of the last line – “till death do us part” – has been integrated into oaths exchanged at the standard, gentile wedding service. Yet this is not a proclamation of love between bride and groom! Those words are not found engraved on tree bark, nor are they recited by a besotted lover from her balcony in the moonlight, but are spoken by the widowed Ruth to Naomi, her mother-in-law: What Ruth conveys is that her life, her identity, is bound up in the older woman’s – land, people, God. Like Abraham, she will leave behind her homeland, her kin, and her mother and father’s home in Moab to become a “stranger in a land not her own.” Ruth does not do this at the behest of God, but through a process of recognition, expanding her own identity through the eyes of others. It is precisely this process of re-rooting one’s identity which is at the core of love.

Questions of identity constitute a leitmotif in the Book of Ruth. When Naomi returns to Bethlehem, with her Moabite daughter-in-law, the whole city was abuzz, it hummed (va’tehom kol ha-‘ir aleihen), and the women ask, in astonishment: “Can this be Naomi [ha-zot Naomi]?” (1:19). Later Boaz will ask the reapers about the identity of Ruth as she gleans in the fields, “Whose girl is that [le-mi ha-na‘ara ha-zot]?” (2:6); and later, startled at night by her presence in the granary, he asks: “Who are you [mi at]?” (3:8), and Naomi will ask the same, when Ruth returns early the next morning, in a greeting that combines both intimacy and estrangement: “Who are you, my daughter [mi ‘at biti]?” (3:16).

The answer to these questions are addressed, indirectly, through two key verbs – to recognize/acknowledge (lehakir, root: nun.kaf.resh.) and to know (leda‘at, root:yod.dalet.ayin). Boaz is introduced to us as the mod‘a of Naomi’s husband, meaning ‘kinsman’ (or in the ktiv, mey‘uda, ‘the known one’) (Ruth 2:1); and later Naomi will refer to him as “moda‘atenu” (our relative) in 3:2. So while he is the wealthy man, the well-known one, the obvious candidate to redeem Naomi’s lands – the women need to be drawn out of their outsider status – to be recognized by him before the redemption can happen.

In the first conversation between Boaz and Ruth, he tells her, in a tone of paternal care, to stay gleaning in his fields and remain close to the young women, for he has ordered the men not to harass her (2:8-9). She then falls on her face, bowing to the ground, and bursts forth with these astonishing words: “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you acknowledge me, when I am a foreigner [lehakireni v’anokhi nokhriyah]?” (Ruth 2:10). In an elegant word-play, Ruth reveals a deeper meaning to the verb, lehakir – a seeming oxymoron imbedded within it. The root (nun.kaf.resh.), in the hiphil, indeed means “to recognize” or “discern”, but both as a noun, nekhar, and as an adjective,nokhri/nokhriyah, it connotes the one who is “alien/foreign.” Ruth, at that moment, understands that Boaz has seen beyond her status as stranger, beyond the taboo of “Moabite”, in recognizing her. That act, however, does not collapse the gap between them; rather she remains other (stranger). To recognize, as opposed to knowing, “does not abolish the distance between two people but brings that distance to life” (Walter Benjamin on friendship). The self within her, the anokhi, as stranger, nokhriyah, has been embraced by his recognition of her, as he avers: “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The Lord recompense you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” (Ruth 2:11-12). However lofty, his words strike a distant, impersonal chord.

Only at the threshing floor, will his own identity become transformed, when the gap between them becomes charged. Here the tension between knowing/being known and recognition of the other reaches an apex. Naomi seizes the day,carpe diem, or rather the night, carpe noctem. This is the moment of transformation “just around midnight” (3:8). She tells Ruth that this very night Boaz will be winnowing barley on the fleshing floor as part of the Harvest festival. So the younger woman is to bathe, dress up, and go down to the threshing floor, “but not make herself known to the man [אַל תִּוָּדְעִי לָאִישׁ ] until he has finished eating and drinking” (3:3). Ruth is to uncover his feet and lie down, and rely on what he will “tell [her] to do” (v. 4). Clearly, her stealthy visit to the threshing floor is riskée; if she were discovered, her reputation would be shot. After lying at his feet all night, she must rise up early, before “any man could recognize another [בְּטֶרֶם יַכִּיר אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ]” for Boaz had told her: “It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor [אַל יִוָּדַע כִּי בָאָה הָאִשָּׁה הַגֹּרֶן]” (3:14).

She is “not to be known” (i.e. recognized), initially, by Boaz, and later by any other man, yet she must uncover and lie at his feet (in order to ‘be known’ in the carnal sense). She conceals her identity, while revealing, possibly, his nakedness. Much ink has been spilled over the expression “undercover his feet [legalot margelotav]” as a euphemism for sexual relations. Indubitably, along with the verb, “lie down [shakhav]”, Naomi is setting Ruth up for a seduction. What actually happens, however, is a non-seduction – an act of recognition that does not entail the man knowing the woman, in the ‘biblical sense’ of the term:

In the middle of the night, the man gave a start and pulled back-there was a woman lying at his feet! “Who are you?” he asked. And she replied, “I am your handmaid Ruth. Spread your wing/robe [kenafekha] over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman [ki goel ata].” (Ruth 3:8-9)

This is not the script that Naomi had in mind. For one, Boaz wakes up startled, and asks: WHO ARE YOU? She then identifies herself as Ruth, his handmaid, and tells him to spread his robe, or rather his wings over her. This is the most amazing statement. She does not wait for him to tell her what to do (as her mother-in-law had instructed), but has taken those lofty (yet impersonal) words that Boaz had uttered in the field, blessing her to be brought under the wings of the God of Israel, and applied it to Boaz himself (2:12). This is no simple marriage proposal (as Rashi claims) – it is a call for him to draw her into the covenantal community. In Ezekiel, to be brought under the wings of love – implies both a marriage and an initiation into the brit, the covenant between God and his people:

I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak/my wings [kenafai] over you, and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord GOD, and you became mine. (Ezek. 16:8)

She hints that his blessing to her – to be brought under the wings of the God of Israel – entails that Boaz behave as the redeemer. She names him: you are thegoel. In so doing, his identity as the distant “known one” is transformed into one who acts out of love, recognizing the ‘stranger,’ Ruth, and offering her a sense of rootedness, of connection, of belonging. At the Gates of the Law, he takes on that responsibility by fusing the role of the redeemer of both land and seed – conceiving through the widowed Ruth a child that Naomi will nurture.

It is highly significant that we read The Book of Ruth on the Day of Matan Torah, commemorating the consummation of the marriage between God and the Jewish People. In the Exodus from Egypt, God bore us on eagles’ wings and brought us to Himself (Exod. 19:4). To ride the wings of an eagle, as a gosling, entails the risk of falling, the risk of being a stranger, unmoored in a strange land, a people wandering the bleak desert terrain towards a Land of Promise they’ve never known. This is the risk Ruth takes. And it is the risk we continually take in accepting the yoke of the Torah. In Moses’ swansong, the prophet describes God’s love for his people: “As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wing, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions” (Deut. 32:11). When we stand before the Eternal Sinai, at Shavuot, in our betrothal to God, we ask that His wings spread before us to catch us if we fall in our fledgling attempts at flight. And God, in turn, promises to betroth/bind us [‘arastikh] to him as his wife forever “in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy” (Hosea 2:19). May we merit to love and to be loved, the wings of the Shekhinah hovering below or above us!

Shavuot: The Motives of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz

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The Night at the Threshing Floor:

Uncovering the Motives of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz

 

By Rav Mordechai Sabato

Translated by David Silverberg

GO OVER AND UNCOVER HIS FEET

Ruth’s marriage to Boaz appears, at first glance, to be the climax of Megillat Ruth. This point marks the union between the two great “gomlei chasadim” (doers of kindness) of the Megilla, Ruth and Boaz. The marriage receives warm blessings from the nation and its elders (4:11-12), and these heartfelt wishes accompany the couple throughout their marriage. Although the ultimate purpose of the marriage – “to perpetuate the name of the deceased upon his estate” – has yet to be achieved, this stage is not solely in man’s power, and depends upon the will of God.

This marriage, which took place before “all the people at the [city] gate and the elders,” including witnesses, as required by Jewish law, originated from the peculiar, mysterious encounter at the threshing floor. Naomi had initiated the idea that Ruth come to Boaz at the threshing floor, and quite clearly explained her underlying motive: “Daughter, I must seek security for you, where you may be happy” (3:1). This expression clearly alludes to marriage, and refers us back to what Naomi had told her daughters-in-law towards the beginning of the Megilla: “May the Lord grant that each of you find security in the house of a husband” (1:9).

However, the means Naomi employs appear not to correspond at all with this objective. Her initial instructions – “Bathe, anoint yourself, dress up” (3:3) – may indeed refer to preparations for marriage. But her next instruction – “and go down to the threshing floor; do not disclose yourself to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he lies down, and go over and uncover his feet and lie down” (3:3-4) – can hardly be seen as marriage. It certainly does not meet the criteria of marriage as defined by Halakha, as the Rambam writes at the beginning of Hilkhot Ishut (1:1):

“Before the giving of the Torah, a man would meet a woman in the marketplace, and if he and she wished to marry, he would bring her into his home and lie with her in private, and she would thus be his wife. Once the Torah was given, Yisrael were commanded that should a man wish to marry a woman, he must first acquire her in the presence of witnesses and only then she becomes his wife, as it says, ‘When a man takes a woman and comes to her.'”

It is hard to imagine that Naomi anticipated Boaz’s extraordinary response to Ruth’s arrival. To the contrary, the simple reading of Naomi’s instructions indicates that she prepared her daughter-in-law for an illicit relationship with Boaz. Naomi assumed (to a large extent, correctly) that in Boaz’s condition at that point, after eating and drinking, he would be unable to restrain himself upon discovering a woman lying at his feet in the middle of the night, when there would be nobody around to witness the event.

It seems that the Midrash (Ruth Rabba 6:4), which compares Boaz’s situation that night to Yosef’s challenge in Potifar’s home, viewed this incident from such an angle:

“Rabbi Yossi said: There were three whose evil inclination threatened to overtake them, and each of them responded to it with an oath. They are: Yosef, David and Boaz.

Yosef – as it says, ‘How then can I do this most wicked thing… and sin before God?’… He swore to his evil inclination and said, ‘By God, I will not sin.’…

Boaz – from where do we know? For it says, ‘as the Lord lives – lie down until morning’… Rabbi Yehuda says: That entire night, his evil inclination worked against him, saying, ‘You are single and seek a wife; she is single and seeks a husband. Arise and sleep with her, and she will be your wife!’ He swore to his evil inclination and said, ‘As the Lord lives, I will not touch her.'”

This incident brings to mind as well the story of Lot and his daughters: “Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father” (Bereishit 19:32). Several details, however, reveal a basic distinction between the two narratives. Naomi’s etiquette prevented her from describing her objective in explicit terms, and thus mentioned simply, “lie down,” omitting the word “imo” (“with him”). Similarly, Naomi does not recommend having Boaz drink, nor does she anticipate his becoming intoxicated to the point of losing awareness of his conduct. In fact, Naomi expects that Boaz will tell Ruth that same night “what you are to do” (3:4).

These differences express the essential distinction between the two incidents, a distinction that reveals the underlying goal of Naomi’s plan. Lot’s daughters clearly intended merely to bear children from their father, and never had any intention of marrying him. This cannot possibly be Naomi’s intention, for how would this provide the “security” that she so sincerely wished for Ruth? Necessarily, then, Naomi figured that an intimate relationship at the threshing floor would lead to marriage. Knowing Boaz as she did – “For the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today” (3:18) – Naomi was convinced that Boaz would not allow his encounter with Ruth to remain an illicit relationship. Understanding Ruth’s motives and acknowledging his responsibility as a goel (redeeming kinsman), he would marry Ruth.

LET IT NOT BE KNOWN THAT THE WOMAN CAME TO THE THRESHING FLOOR

This approach gives rise to the critical question of whether the Tanakh approves of Naomi’s plan. Is it permissible for her to fulfill her noble objective through the most inappropriate of means? May one person trigger another’s awareness of his responsibility by arousing his evil inclination?

This question brings to mind a similar question concerning another prominent woman in Tanakh, Rivka, who orders Yaakov to seize deceptively the blessings intended for his brother. Convinced that Yaakov deserved the blessings, by virtue of both his character and the explicit prophecy she had received from God – “the older will serve the younger” (see Targum Onkelos and Rashbam to Bereishit 27:13), Rivka instructs Yaakov to deceive his father and take his brother’s blessing. In both instances, the women felt assured of their scheme’s success, despite the considerable risk entailed. The Midrash (Ruth Rabba 6:1) indeed draws a comparison between these two incidents:

“‘A man’s trembling becomes a trap for him’ (Mishlei 29:25): This refers to the trembling Yaakov caused Yitzchak, as it says, ‘Yitzchak was seized with very violent trembling.’ He should have cursed him, only ‘But he who trusts in the Lord shall be safeguarded’ – You placed [an idea] in his heart to bless him, as it says, ‘Now he must remain blessed.’

[This verse also refers to] the trembling Ruth caused Boaz, as it says, ‘The man trembled and pulled back.’ He should have cursed her, only ‘But he who trusts in the Lord shall be safeguarded’ – You placed [an idea] in his heart that he would bless her, as it says, ‘You are blessed to the Lord, my daughter.'”

It is doubtful, however, whether this comparison between Naomi and Rivka could justify what Naomi did. The commentaries have noted that Yaakov’s deception was the direct cause of his exile – not only practically, but also on the level of reward and punishment. Many sources have also observed the clear parallel between Lavan’s duplicity towards Yaakov, particularly in substituting Rachel with Leah, and Yaakov’s seizing of Esav’s blessing. The Midrash comments (Bereishit Rabba 70:19):

“Throughout the night, he would call to her, ‘Rachel,’ and she would respond. In the morning, ‘Behold, she was Leah.’ He said: You are a trickster, the daughter of a trickster! She said to him: Is there a teacher without students? Did your father not similarly call to you, ‘Esav,’ and you responded? You, too, called to me and I responded.”

This Midrash clearly sees Yaakov’s experiences with Lavan as a punishment”measure-for-measure” for deceiving his father. (For further elaboration on this subject, see Nechama Leibowitz’s “Studies on Sefer Bereishit.”)

In our context, too, the Midrash (Ruth Rabba 7:1) emphasizes the chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) that could have resulted from Ruth’s visit to the threshing floor:

“Rabbi Chonya and Rabbi Yirmiya said in the name of Rav Shemuel bar Rav Yitzchak: That entire night, Boaz was spread out on the floor crying, ‘Master of the worlds! It is revealed and known to You that I did not touch her. May it be Your will that it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor, so that the Name of God not be desecrated through me!'”

“I MUST SEEK SECURITY FOR YOU”

An action taken that could potentially result in a chillul Hashem must be looked upon negatively. But despite the impropriety with which we assess Naomi’s scheme, it behooves us to fully understand her motives. Her primary goal is, as mentioned earlier, finding security for Ruth. Naomi has in mind not her own well-being, but rather Ruth’s. The question, then, arises, if indeed Naomi thinks only of what is best for Ruth, why does she insist on Ruth’s marriage to Boaz, which entails a risky scheme that could potentially cause a chillul Hashem and even damage Ruth’s reputation and bring upon her a curse?

One might have suggested that no one in Am Yisrael at that time would be willing to marry a Moavite girl who only recently arrived from Moav, lest he “impair his estate” (see 4:6). This assumption, however, is clearly incorrect, for Boaz tells Ruth, “Your latest act of kindness is greater than the first, in that you have not turned to younger men, whether poor or rich” (3:10). Even after Ruth’s “first act of kindness,” her resettlement in Israel with Naomi, she could have “turned to younger men.” Boaz perceives her decision not to do so as an act of kindness to Naomi. It stands to reason that both of Ruth’s acts of kindness stem from the same underlying reason. The reason behind her first act of kindness is clearly expressed in her own words to Naomi:

“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and here I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord to do me if anything but death parts me from you.” (1:16-17)

Significantly, the idea of joining Am Yisrael and embracing the Jewish faith is not the primary component of Ruth’s declaration. She focuses here instead on her desire to stay with Naomi wherever she goes. The significance of this point has to do with the supreme kindness entailed, her devotion to Naomi that does not yield to any other considerations, including religious factors. Thus, for example, had Naomi decided to join a different nation, Ruth still would have joined her. Ruth’s refusal to “turn to younger men” simply continues her first act of kindness and expresses her ongoing devotion to Naomi. Her marriage to a different man would have pulled her to his family and estate, which would necessarily mean her separation from Naomi – something she had promised never to allow to occur.

Naomi knew full well Ruth’s considerations. She understood that she could find “security” for her daughter-in-law, a husband acceptable to Ruth, only from within her family, someone who would redeem the family’s estate. Such a marriage would not only prevent Ruth’s separation from Naomi, but would rebuild Naomi’s destroyed family by “perpetuating the name of the deceased upon his estate.” The fact that immediately upon their return from Moav, Providence directed Ruth to Boaz’s field, served for Naomi as a sign from above, as she says to Ruth, “Blessed be he of the Lord, who has not failed in His kindness to the living or to the dead… for the man is related to us; he is one of our redeeming kinsmen” (2:20). (This sign parallels the prophecy given to Rivka, that her older son would serve the younger, which led her to act as he did, as discussed earlier.) Seeing that several months have passed and Boaz had not acted to fulfill his obligation as redeemer, Naomi decides to rely on the heavenly signal and actively pursue the matter. We must emphasize once again that Naomi is driven primarily by her desire to find stability and security for Ruth, rather than perpetuating her deceased husband’s name upon his estate.

I WILL DO EVERYTHING YOU TELL ME

Ruth hears Naomi’s plan and responds, “I will do everything you tell me” (3:5). Ruth goes to the threshing floor not to find for herself security, but rather to obey her mother-in-law’s command. What did Ruth think of Naomi’s scheme? She did not know Boaz as Naomi did. Although Boaz indeed treated her warmly and kindly when they first met, what she now does violates the most basic codes of ethics. Wouldn’t he think of her as a conniving manipulator? Wouldn’t she bring upon herself a curse, rather than blessing? After all, as the Midrash commented, he rightfully should have cursed her. And who could guarantee that he would marry her? Wouldn’t she expect that after his loss of control he would try to dissociate himself from her and his sinful act, leaving her bereft not only of security, but of her self-respect? Wouldn’t she be seen as a Moavite girl who brings with her to Israel the norms of Moav? Despite all these concerns, “She did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her” (3:6).

It would seem that beyond her commitment to her mother-in-law’s command, Ruth is driven by another consideration, which emerges from a comparison between this narrative and the incident of Yehuda and Tamar. Tamar, too, seduced Yehuda in order to perpetuate the name of the deceased, putting her honor and even her life at risk. But as opposed to Ruth, Tamar knew with certainty that her father-in-law could not marry her, as the Torah states clearly in explaining the reason behind Yehuda’s conduct: “He said, ‘Here, let me lie with you’ – for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law” (Bereishit 38:16). Likewise, after that entire incident, we are told that “he was not intimate with her again” (38:16). Tamar knew from the outset that even if her plan succeeded, she would not marry Yehuda or any other man, and would remain a widow for the rest of her life. She nevertheless was prepared to pay this price in order to perpetuate the name of the deceased.

In Ruth’s case, marriage was certainly a possibility and in fact was the center of Naomi’s plan, but Ruth was also prepared for the other possibility. Like Tamar, Ruth is willing to endanger her future in order to perpetuate the name of the deceased and rebuild Naomi’s family. Undoubtedly, though, she preferred the first possibility, and thus asked Boaz, “Spread your robe over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman” (3:9). It turns out, then, that just as Naomi’s primary goal is Ruth’s security, so is Ruth’s objective to find security for her mother-in-law and rebuild her family’s ruins.

TO PERPETUATE THE NAME OF THE DECEASED UPON HIS ESTATE

Is it proper to perpetuate the deceased’s name in such a fashion?

To answer this question, we must analyze the mitzva of yibbum (levirate marriage) as the Torah describes it in Sefer Devarim (25:5-8):

Verse 5: When brothers dwell together and one of them dies and leaves no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married to a stranger, outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall unite with her, take her as his wife and perform the levir’s duty.

Verse 6: The first son that she bears shall be accounted to the dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out in Israel.

Verse 7: But if the man does not want to marry his brother’s widow, his brother’s widow shall appear before the elders in the gate and declare: “My husband’s brother refuses to establish a name in Israel for his brother; he will not perform the duty of a levir.”

Verse 8: The elders of his town shall then summon him and talk to him. If he insists, saying, “I do not want to marry her,” his brother’s widow shall go up to him…

The first verse in this sdescribes the case – “When brothers dwell together and one of them dies” – and establishes the halakha that applies in such a case – “the wife of the deceased shall not be married to a stranger… Her husband’s brother shall… perform the levir’s duty.” This halakha consists of both a prohibition (“the wife… shall not be married to a stranger”) and a positive imperative (“Her husband’s brother shall unite with her”).

The structure of the positive command requires explanation. It begins with the obligation to engage in marital relations (“unite with her”) and proceeds to describe the process of marriage (“take her as his wife”) and then again mentions the “levir’s duty.” This verse would appear to be constructed in the form of “kelal u-prat,” whereby it first presents the general goal – “unite with her” – and then specifies how it is achieved: “take her as a wife and perform the levir’s duty.” The Torah thus establishes that, although the underlying purpose of yibbum is the union between the brother and the widow to perpetuate the name of the deceased, this must be done only through the process of marriage. Towards this end, the Torah permits the otherwise forbidden marriage to one’s sister-in-law. It emerges, then, that even the lofty purpose of perpetuating the name of the deceased does not permit an illicit relationship. (The Biblical Encyclopedia records an ancient Indian custom that when a childless man dies, his brother must perpetuate the deceased’s name by begetting children from the widow, but he may not marry her. The Torah in these verses intends to establish the exact opposite law.)

This idea receives added emphasis in verses 7-8, which deal with a situation where the brother refuses to fulfill his obligation. These verses make a clear distinction between the terms “lekicha” (marriage) and “yibbum” (the levir’s duty), establishing that if the man “does not want to marry his brother’s widow,” then “yibbum” cannot occur, even though in theory the deceased’s name can be perpetuated outside the context of marriage. The brother says, “I do not want to marry her,” whereas the widow declares, “He will not perform the duty of the levir.” Meaning, the brother’s refusal to marry the widow, even if he agrees to the act of yibbum, effectively amounts to the cancellation of the yibbum and preventing the perpetuation of the deceased’s name. The Torah thereby retroactively renders Tamar’s act illegitimate, despite her noble, sincere motives and her willingness to sacrifice her future and even her life.

KINDNESS AND TRUTH MEET

Similarly, Ruth’s visit to the threshing floor, had it proceeded according to Naomi’s plan, would not have fulfilled the Torah’s command, despite the fact that we are dealing with two single individuals who are permitted to marry one another. The Torah demands that marriage precede the act of yibbum, whereas Naomi had intended for the act of yibbum to lead to marriage. Although Naomi’s scheme would have resulted in the fulfillment of the mitzva of ge’ula (redeeming the lost property of a relative), it was to have begun with Boaz satisfying his desires, rather than performing a mitzva. Had events transpired according to Naomi’s expectations, this would not have corrected Tamar’s mistake and would most certainly not have been worthy of the glory and grandeur associated with this story.

The unique quality of Megillat Ruth stems from the fact that the problem arising from Ruth’s remarkable loyalty to Naomi was overcome by Boaz’s extraordinary strength. Boaz understood that he must not allow Ruth’s kindness towards Naomi to fade into the dark of night at the threshing floor. The existence of “another redeemer closer than I” (3:12) need not have prevented Boaz from performing the yibbum, for although primary responsibility falls upon the oldest brother, the mitzva can be fulfilled by the younger brother as well. Furthermore, Naomi was undoubtedly aware of the closer relative, and yet sent Ruth specifically to Boaz. Boaz knew that in order for Ruth to receive full reward for her kindness, her redemption must be carried out in all its details in strict compliance with Jewish law, in the presence of witnesses and elders. Only a redemption of this sort could have earned Boaz and Ruth the blessing, “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel” (4:11). Indeed, the Midrash comments (Ruth Rabba 6:2) that Boaz and Ruth were blessed with children in the merit of this blessing bestowed upon them by the righteous elders and people at the gate.

It is thus that moment at the threshing floor, when Boaz controlled his inclination, that marks the climax of the Megilla. In a rare demonstration of profound understanding of the soul of another, Boaz recognized the purity of Ruth’s motives, and thus blessed her, rather than cursing her. From this point on, after the three main figures in the Megilla – Naomi, Ruth and Boaz – fulfilled their role, events could transpire naturally, as if on their own:

“Boaz had gone to the gate and sat down there, and now the redeemer whom Boaz had mentioned passed by – had he been standing just behind the gate?

Rav Shemuel Bar Nachman said: Even had he been at the other end of the world, the Almighty would have flown him and brought him there in order that this righteous man [Boaz] should not have to sit in distress…

Rabbi Eliezer said: Boaz did his, Ruth did hers, and Naomi did hers; the Almighty then said: I, too, will do Mine.” (Ruth Rabba 7:7)

The Book of Ruth: An Exploration of Jewish Femininity, Tzipporah Heller

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THE BOOK OF RUTH:
AN EXPLORATION OF JEWISH FEMININITY

(Adapted from a lecture by Tsiporah Heller entitled, “Great Women: Ruth and Naomi”)

PART 1 OF 2:

The book of Ruth takes place towards the end of what is known as the Era of Judges. Throughout this period there was virtually no central government in Israel. What prevented anarchy was a deep allegiance to Torah. Every city had its court to administer the Torah’s laws, and there were exemplary leaders known as judges, who people would follow. The last of these was a man named Boaz, whose name means, “the one who is daring.”

The Book of Ruth begins towards the end of the Era of Judges, with a famine, which according to the Midrash, was one of ten caused by God for spiritual purpose – as a test of faith. (The others included: a famine when Adam was expelled from Eden and those that took place during the eras of the three Patriarchs). The famine was meant to create a situation whereby people would be joined by their suffering, however, in this case the opposite happened.

Enter the family of Naomi, whose husband Elimelech, was one of the leaders of the generation, a man of great wealth and highly developed character who made a mistake. During this famine, Elimelech was besieged by people in need, and left Israel for the adjoining kingdom of Moab. The Moabites were known for two qualities – cruelty and promiscuity.

When Elimelech decided to depart for Moab, Naomi faced the choice of whether to accompany her husband to this depraved country, or to stay in Israel without him. Although she wanted to remain behind (and Jewish law would have allowed her to do so), she chose to go with her husband. Once in Moab, Naomi lost everything. Elimelech died, and her two sons married non-Jewish women – and then died. The Book of Ruth tells us that at this point Naomi was old and penniless, whereas she had arrived wealthy and of high status. Nonetheless, rather than give up on life, Naomi “rose up” and decided to return to Israel. Her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, wanted to accompany her on this journey. Naomi, however, discouraged them. Given their Moabite roots, Naomi did not know whether they would be a good spiritual fit with the Jewish people, and she was willing to sacrifice her own well being on the trip for this reason.

(In Naomi’s effort to discourage her daughters-in-law we see the template for a rabbi’s response to someone who approaches him seeking conversion. Today when a gentile seeks to convert, it is the rabbi’s duty to discourage him or her. The rabbi is obligated to tell a prospective convert three things: first, that the mitzvot – obligations of a Jew – are difficult and expensive. If the individual still persists, the next thing the rabbi will say is, “You can convert in but you can’t convert out. This is a one-way trip and you can be a decent person without taking it.” Only Judaism believes that a person can be decent without “being a member of the club”. If the person still persists, the rabbi finally responds, “You’re going to be a member of a persecuted people”).

In the Book of Ruth, after Naomi discourages her daughters-in-law, the text (1:14) tells us that Orpah kissed her, while Ruth clung to her. Kissing reflects the will to love and be loved, beyond just physical sensation. Clinging to someone is completely different. It has to do with deeds, thought and speech. Orpah wanted the feeling of closeness; Ruth wanted a deeper closeness. Orpah ultimately left Naomi in order to remain in Moab. The Midrash tells us that she spent that very night with many men and a dog. In rabbinic literature, the dog is used as a symbol of chutzpa. We are told that in the era prior to the Messianic age, the face of the generation will be as full of chutzpa the face of the dog. In order to best understand this image, visualize a man walking down the street with a pet sheep. In this case, the man would be in front; the sheep in back. A man walking down the street with his pet dog, by contrast, follows the dog. The dog perceives itself to be a leader even though it is not a leader.

A dog is a symbol of a being that is empty. Even though Orpah was a great woman who had lived a Jewish life as the wife of one of Elimelech’s sons for the past ten years, her decision to leave Naomi perpetuated her spiritual decline. Consequently Orpah sought out a partner of lesser character. What she wanted and found was the kind of person who is a dog. This is the invariable consequence of going from relationship to relationship, from person to person. Four generations later, Orpa’s great great grandson faced off with Ruth’s great great grandson. Orpah’s great great grandson was Goliath. Ruth’s great great grandson was David. Goliath was known for his enormous physical presence. He got up in the morning to mock the God of Israel and was not for anything, only against. There was no inner conscience whatsoever – all outside, no inside. David was the extreme opposite. He was so physically unimposing that when the prophet Samuel visited David’s father, Yishai and announced, “I’ve had a vision and God said one of your sons will be king,” the Yishai did not present David amongst his other sons. When the prophet asked, “Don’t you have any other sons,” Yishai responded, “No, there’s only David!”.

In contrast to the limitations that Orpah’s choice reveal about her character, the merit of Ruth’s choice to remain with Naomi is best examined by looking at the text. Ruth said to Naomi (1:1617), “Don’t entreat me to leave and to go back from behind you because wherever you go, I’ll go. Wherever you sleep, I’ll sleep. Your people is my people, your God is my God. Where you die, I’ll die and there I’ll be buried…” The Midrash tells us that Ruth’s words answer implicit statements from Naomi, as follows:

“Where you go, I’ll go”: The Midrash explains this is an answer to Naomi’s question, “Will you keep the laws that limit how far you can travel on Shabbat?” The background to this question is that, wherever one is when Shabbat begins, Jewish law limits his or her mobility to the edge of the city, plus another mile. Naomi points this out as a significant hardship in Jewish observance, due to the limitations it places on individual freedom. Humans are always going somewhere, at will. The first thing that Naomi tells Ruth is, as a Jew, your sense of mission has to be so strong that your decision of where to be has something to do with God, rather than with your own agenda. Ruth replies, “Okay, where you go, I’ll go.”

“Where you sleep, I’ll sleep.” Naomi explains to Ruth the laws of “yichud,” which forbid a woman to be in absolute isolation with a man. In contrast to the permissiveness of contemporary society, Jewish law limits the opportunity for a man and woman to be alone together, if they are not married to one another. For instance, they are not allowed to sleep in the same house, if they are to be the only people there. The laws of yichud are challenging because they presuppose that none of us is perfect and that we are all under suspicion. By contrast, contemporary society tends to hold a double standard: while it is largely sexual and promiscuous, there is a sense of denial about this fact. There is an assumption that of course it is safe to be with anybody under any circumstance, because nobody would ever cross a line. The opposite is often the case. The laws of yichud take into account the reality that human beings are easily tempted. By explaining these laws to Ruth, Naomi implies that a Jewish life openly takes into account this fallibility in human nature.

“Your people are my people.” The Midrash explains that Naomi revealed to Ruth the laws of kashrut which, in effect, keep the Jewish people separate from other nations. While this separateness in not the reason for the mitzva of kashrut (which is not revealed to us by the Torah), keeping kosher effectively puts a damper on certain types of social interaction between Jews and non-Jews, involving food and drink. This is purposeful and allows a Jew to focus on his or her mission as a Jew, which is separate from that of the other nations. The purpose of the Jewish people is to give spiritual direction to the world through our example. God says in the Torah, “I’ve chosen you to be a holy nation and a nation of priests.” Ruth responds to Naomi, “I’ll take your kashrut. I’ll accept that Jews are different.” This is a major statement.

“Your God is my God” In today’s politically correct society, standards of “tolerance” have led to the inclusion of much that is inappropriate or even dangerous. In fact, nobody who has a strong sense of morality could possibly afford to be “tolerant”. It is on this basis that Ruth’s statement “Your God is my God,” implies that she no longer accepts the validity of every existing belief system.

“Where you die, I’ll die. Where you’re buried, I’ll be buried.” In Judaism people make a very big deal about a yartzheit (the anniversary of an individual’s death). Judaism sees death as the most significant day of a person’s life. Being born is no big deal, since one does not make a choice to be born, whereas the person who you are the day you die is the person you built.

Naomi tells Ruth that conversion to Judaism does not guarantee success in life. The Torah sets high standards for human conduct, and failure to achieve them is always a possibility. Ruth chooses, nonetheless, to accompany her mother-in-law into the land of Israel. What happens to them there, and how they develop themselves will be explored in our next class…

PART 2 OF 2:

In our previous class, we left Ruth and Naomi on the border of Israel, poised to re-enter the land from which Naomi had departed an aristocrat and was about to return to a pauper. Ruth has committed to Judaism, in spite of Naomi’s challenges to her decision. In this class we follow their story…

Once in Israel, Ruth – a convert and a foreigner – sustains herself and Naomi as best she can, by gathering gleanings from fields in Bethlehem. She is able to do so, because Torah law mandates that every person who owns a field must leave gleanings from the harvest – as well as a corner of the field itself – for collection by the poor. (The Torah rationale for this type of charity is that it gives the person who is collecting gleanings a sense of purpose, while it instills in the field owner an understanding that his property belongs ultimately not to him, but to G-d).

Enter a man named Boaz, recently widowed, and the owner of the field where Ruth is gleaning. Boaz is a leader of his generation – a judge – whose formal residence is in Jerusalem, but who is in Bethlehem for his wife’s funeral and to inspect his fields at harvest. Boaz notices Ruth, from among hundreds of people in the field. According to the Midrash, she stands out as the only one bending her knees to glean, in order to expose less of her legs, rather than bending from her back. While, according to the more promiscuous standards of Ruth’s Moabite background this gesture might have been considered a wasted effort, from a Jewish point of view it demonstrates to Boaz the important Jewish quality of “tsniut” – modesty. Ruth has, in essence, fully embraced the more dignified standards at the heart of her new Jewish life. What’s more, from Moabite society which valued “me,” with a capital “M,” Ruth has transformed herself to a point where she is committed to laboring in the fields in order to support her mother-in-law.

Boaz approaches Ruth, encourages her to return to his field as often as she needs to, introduces her to the other women who work for him, arranges for gleanings to be left for her on purpose and basically goes his way. Meanwhile, Naomi already knows of Boaz and is aware of the fact that he is Ruth’s great uncle, forty years her senior. Their family connection is significant to Naomi, in light of the Torah law of “yibum,” which obligates one of the male relatives of a man who died before having children to marry his widow. This takes place in order to bring down the soul of the dead man through the life of the new couple’s future child. Ruth’s husband had died and left her childless, so Naomi sees Boaz as a candidate for Ruth, according to the laws of yibum.

Ruth’s contemplated match, however, might be construed as problematic by the surrounding society, since Torah law states that a Jew cannot marry a Moabite. While the Oral tradition is that this mandate does not include women, most people at the time the story of Ruth takes place are unaware of this fact.

Naomi suggests that Ruth appear that night on the threshing floor, where all of the workers including Boaz would be sleeping, in order to be as close as possible to the fields at a critical time in the harvest. She instructs Ruth to uncover Boaz’s feet so as to wake him and set the process of “yibum” in motion. From Ruth’s point of view, the plan is problematic, not only because it is unconventional, but because the marriage of a Moabite to a Jew is unlikely (as explained above). What’s more, such a brash approach runs counter to Ruth’s innate modesty, which is what so impressed Boaz in the first place. While Ruth’s conduct would be for all the right reasons, she is concerned that he may view her behavior as inappropriate and then be unwilling to marry her. This would leave Ruth without a way to bring a child into the world for the sake of her deceased husband.

In spite of the obvious obstacles, Ruth consents to Naomi’s plan, doing so not for her own sake, but for the sake of her husband in the hope that she will be able to bring his soul back into the world, through her offspring. This gesture of kindness and the risk she is willing to take for her husband demonstrate the extent of Ruth’s transformation from Moabite to Jew. Ultimately, the plan works. Boaz awakens and Ruth successfully confronts him with her request for marriage. Their union produces a lineage that leads to King David and eventually will bring the Moshiach. Their marriage merits this lineage because of its purity of intentions and the greatness of the two individuals involved.

For the contemporary Jewish woman, Ruth and Naomi are not only ancient heroines, but role models with relevant lessons to share. Naomi, who refused to be depressed in the face of adversity, can inspire us to seek answers in those places upon which we have turned our backs. On a practical level this might mean facing our past, in order to create for ourselves a better future, or even embracing those close to us who do not necessarily see eye to eye with our own opinions. In this way, we build, rather than destroy, which is exactly what Naomi managed to do.

Ruth, who created for herself a life of dignity, inspires us to assess our own surroundings and to transcend their less desirable aspects. By doing so, we free ourselves to make decisions about who we are, based on what we inherently know about ourselves, rather than what we are told we should be. From this process we emerge unique individuals, surprising ourselves – even delighting ourselves – with an ongoing discovery of our deepest gifts.

Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2000 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and ProjectGenesis, Inc.