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Shavuot: Does the Book of Ruth Matter?
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The holiday of Shavuot, as holidays go, is a very grand holiday. We associate it with an event no less magnificent, than the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. And yet the book that we read on this holiday, the Book of Ruth, by comparison, seems very pedestrian; it seems to talk about small stuffs, not big stuff. It’s the story of a courtship between Ruth, and ultimately a man named Boaz.
Ruth originally comes from Moabite stock, she is a convert, and she ends marrying Boaz. And it’s a very nice story, a very charming story, a kind of rags to spiritual riches story perhaps, of this girl who marries Boaz and ends up having a great grandchild by the name of David, who became King David, and certainly the linage that emerges from Boaz and Ruth suggests that there is something grand going on here. But if you look at the Book itself, it doesn’t look like a very spectacular book; nothing really happens. It almost seems just like a day in the life of Bet Lehem.
The story begins with a man by the name of Elimelech. Elimelech has two children, Machlon and Kilyon. The names Machlon and Kilyon by the way are very strange names; Machlon means sickness, Kilyon means destruction. I mean, what strange names to name your kids; “come here little Sickness, come here little Destruction”. But look these are the names. They head off from Bet Lehem where they were born, and they go with their father and mother Elimelech and Naomi, they go to the neighboring land of Moab. And in Moab, Elimelech dies and, Machlon and Kilyon marry Moabites girls; one of them is Ruth and the other one is Orpah. And then Machlon and Kilyon died, and then all that is left is Naomi, the widow of Elimelech, and these two daughter-in-laws, Ruth and Orpah, and Naomi decides that she is going back to Bet Lehem; they had left because of famine, and now there is food again in Bet Lehem. And Orpah and Ruth want to accompany her and she dissuades them. And eventually Orpah turns back, but Ruth doesn’t turn back; she gives that famous speech, “Whither though goest, I will go.” And Ruth sticks with Naomi and comes back to Bet Lehem; and there, they are poor, they are nobodies and everyone kinds of shuns them. But eventually, Ruth starts collecting grains in fields. According to Torah law, the poor are allowed to collect grains after the harvesters have gone through the fields, and she ends up collecting grains in the field of this man by the name of Boaz who apparently seems related to her and eventually she ends up marrying Boaz.
Now their courtship is a slightly bumpy road. Initially Boaz seems to see Ruth as a good person, but it doesn’t seem like the two will marry. But then Ruth approaches Boaz in the middle of the night and basically propositions marriage to him. He accepts, and then the final verses of the Book indicate that their great grandchild ends up being King David himself. So if you look at it, the fact that King David comes from this union, seems to indicate that something special is going on in this Book. But what was so marvelous about what happened here? Shavuot, giving the Torah, that’s clearly a big deal; what’s the big deal in the Book of Ruth?
So I would like to suggest a theory to you. Let’s think about Ruth as she is portrayed in the Book of Ruth. So let’s play my favorite game, ‘Where have we heard all of this before?’ What other famous person in the Torah does Ruth compares to?
First of all, Ruth is not born a Jew, she converts; she comes into the people later. Ruth is known for her kindness; Boaz twice speaks of her kindness. The first time he says, “I heard about what you’ve done for your mother-in-law, after your husband died, you took care of her. It was a great kindness.” Later on, he even seems to characterize Ruth’s willingness to marry him, as opposed to any of the various young men, as a kind of act of loyalty to her dead husband Machlon. Boaz is related to Machlon, there is some sense of loyalty to her dead husband and her choice of Boaz to marry Boaz; and we’ll talk about this more later. But the point is, that Boaz is impressed with her kindness, the kindness of Ruth stands out. Who else was not born a Jew, but comes into the people later? What other person is also known for their great kindness. And of course the answer, at least my answer, I wonder if it’s yours as well, is Abraham.
Abraham is not born a Jew, he founds the faith, he comes into the people, he creates the people and of course he is known for his kindness. The longest extended story of kindness that we have in the entire Torah is the story of Abraham and Sarah entertaining the guests, taking care of them right after Abraham is in pain after a circumcision. Abraham is known for his kindness, Ruth is known for her kindness, and it’s not just the general attributes of kindness and conversion that are points of similarity between Abraham and Ruth, it’s the language of the text itself. Listen to how Boaz described the kindness of Ruth. Huged hugad li kol asher-asit et-chamotech – “It was told to me, all that you’ve done for your mother-in-law” achare mot ishtech – “after the death of your husband.” And now listen to these words, vataazvi avich v’imech- “You left behind your father and your mother”, v’eretz moladtech – “and your birth place” vatelchi el-am asher lo yadaat temol shilshom – “and you went to a nation that you did not know yesterday or the day before.” Who else left behind their mother and their father? Who else left behind their birth place? Who else went to a land that he didn’t know? Of course it’s Abraham himself? Lech lecha meartzecha umemoldtecha umibet avicha – “Go forth from your land, from your father’s land, from your birthplace”, el-haaretz asher arecha – “to the land that you do not know, to the land that land that I will show you.” The language of Ruth is patterned after Abraham, it’s almost as if Ruth is a latter day Abraham so to speak. But what do we make of that?
Now, perhaps at the simplest level, Ruth is the culmination of a promise made to Abraham. Abraham, at the very beginning of the nation, heard the word of God coming to him and saying, v’hefreti otcha bimod meod– “I will multiply your children greatly,” unetaticha legoyim – “I will make them into nations’, umelachim mimecha yetzeu – “and kings will come from you.” The promise to Abraham is not just that he is going to have a lot of children, but those children will coalesce into a nation, and that nation will be organized politically by virtue of kings; “kings will come from you.” When did that promise of nationhood become fully realized? With the era of kings ushered in by King David and of course, where does King David comes from? That’s the Book of Ruth. The Book of Ruth is a kind of culmination of Abraham’s promise, it’s when the era of kings finally comes into being. But I want to argue that it’s not just that the Book of Ruth is a chronological book end to the story of Abraham; it’s a conceptual book end too.
We get our mission statement from the Book of Ruth. I want to argue that here is a narrative that wades its way throughout Tanach, it begins at the very beginning, at the birth of our nation with the story of Abraham. That’s where our mission statement first becomes defined. Later, it becomes codified at the giving of the Torah at Sinai into a set of rules and stories that embodies these rules; we call these stories and these rules the Torah. But then later on in Tanach, in the Book of Ruth, a kind of culmination of that mission statement is reached; there are echoes of Abraham and Ruth. Ruth is a kind of culmination of Abraham’s story. But if that’s true, there is a problem we must grapple with to understand the Book of Ruth, and strangely it’s not even a problem in the Book of Ruth; it’s a problem in the very beginning story, in the story of Abraham, a basic conundrum that faces anyone who reads the story of Abraham and it is this, “Who was Abraham, and why was he so special? Why did God choose him?” We don’t seem to get the answer to that question. The Biblical text itself, the Torah, don’t seem to give us the answer to the question.
Now, if you ask your average school child, “Why was it that Abraham was chosen? What was so great about him?” They will give you answers; they will say things like “Well Abraham was the father of monotheism, he discovered God.” And Maimonides says the same thing. Rambam tells the story about how Abraham philosophically came to search out God, and came to the conclusion that there was a master of the universe behind it all; that idolatry was a lie. But the problem is, we don’t hear about that in the Torah. Why doesn’t the Torah tell us something about that? Other school children will tell you story of the famous story of the midrash.
Abraham once went and smash the idols in his father’s house, and when his father came home and was angry, he pointed to the largest idol and said, “He did it! Not me!” His father said, “That’s ridiculous! Everyone knows an idol can’t do anything.” Abraham says, “If everyone knows an idol can’t do anything, then why do you worship them?” Terach reports Abraham to the King, to Nimrod. Nimrod gives him a choice, “enter the fiery furnace or bow to the idols.” Abraham chooses the fiery furnace and survives. It’s a great story. But it’s a story the midrash tells. If that’s why Abraham was chosen, why wasn’t that story in the Torah? Most of us begin teaching our kids the story of Abraham with the story of Lech lecha, with God appearing out of the blue to this man, to this unknown man one day and saying, “Go forth from your father’s house to this land that I am going to show you and I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, I will make your name great; those who bless you, I’ll bless, those who curse you, I’ll curse them and through you will come blessing to the entire world.” But who was he? How could the story of Abraham begins like this with no introduction? The other great Biblical figures, Noah for example, we hear something about him. Okay! It’s only one verse. Noah, Noach ish tzaddik tamim hayah bedorotav – “Noah was a great man in his generation.” Et-haElokim hithalech-noach – “He walked with God.” Okay, fine! So tell me something like that! Tell me “Abraham was a great man”, tell me” he walked with God”. Why don’t I even get that? How could the Torah be so silent about the man who started it all? Unless the Torah is not silent.
The truth is, there are six verses that most of us do not teach our children, that gives us the introduction to Abraham’s life. They appear before Lech lecha; at the very end of Parshat Noah. And why do most of us not teach our children these verses? The answer probably is that they are too boring. They tell us a maze of seemingly trivial events. They talk of people that we never hear again, obscure names like Nahor and Milcah and Iscah, and who married who, and who travelled where and Abraham’s place among that. It seems like such a wasted opportunity. If we had six verses to talk about Abraham, we would tell the story of the fiery furnace, we would tell the story of how Abraham discovered God. But these verses tells us nothing like that. Why does the Torah seems to waste time giving us trivial details when it could tell us the essence? Unless, it is telling us the essence.
I would like to suggest to you that hidden in these six verses lies a secret story, a narrative that describes Abraham’s greatness and why God took a chance on him. I want to explore these verses with you because when we do, we will begin to understand Abraham’s mission, we will begin to understand how the Torah at Sinai codifies that mission and how centuries later, a woman named Ruth, saved that mission from almost certain failure.
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