Depending on who you are or what your cultural milieu is, Ruth can be seen either as a heroine or an anti-heroine. On the one hand, she is the main protagonist of the Book of Ruth, on the other she is so self-effacing as to almost disappear off the pages. On the one hand, the megillah is named after Ruth, and the Talmud calls her the “Mother of Royalty” and on the other after the whole saga is over the neighbors crowd around and announce that the baby born to Ruth was really born to Naomi!
Self-effacement doesn’t get very good press nowadays, when women are bombarded with messages to make sure their own needs are met, to know when to say no, and to be in touch with themselves. Yet, even as we roll our eyes at this me-generation, a part of us knows that there is something to be said for being in tune with yourself, knowing your needs and communicating your desires.
The fact that Ruth lets Naomi take center stage, that she marries Boaz because it was the right thing to do seems to make Ruth a Bubby’s heroine—someone who the old generation would revere– even as the younger generation might squirm in discomfort.
So was Ruth’s self-effacement good or not good? Perhaps the me-generation has something to teach us.
Ruth’s murky lineage—and her meteoric rise to greatness as the progenitor of King David, and through him, Messiah– packs a very powerful punch in Jewish thought. The fact that Messiah could descend from someone who came from such a lowly place—Ruth’s forefather Lot ran away from Abraham to Sodom, of all awful places—is an incredible message of hope and of the power of the individual to soar beyond any limitations.
And the Midrash does not try to smooth over these unprepossessing ancestors. In fact, it articulates our shock that such lowliness could possibly bring to such greatness: “I have found my servant, David!”, G-d proclaims, “And where have I found him? In Sodom!” (Breishit Rabba, 50)
Ruth was a direct descendant of enigmatic Lot, who started off on such a high–the only one of Abraham’s relatives who managed to extricate himself from Haran and follow Abraham to the land of Canaan. The same Lot, who at the last minute gave all this up and chose to settle himself in Sodom, a city rabidly infected with xenophobia, who tortured do-gooders and invested all their resources in upholding an anti-kindness community.
It is hard to fathom. How could Lot, who had imbibed Abraham’s greatness have chosen to establish himself in a place that was the exact antithesis of Abraham?
In a stunningly beautiful 400 page book on The Book of Ruth, called Rising Moon, its author, Rabbi Moshe Miller, shows how this conundrum of why Lot left Abraham and why he went specifically to Sodom— the absolute antithesis of Abraham– lies at the root of the whole Messiah saga.
Indeed, the megillah hints to this when it describes Ruth as the “[the one] who returned from the fields of Moab”. How could Ruth return to Israel (Bethlehem) when she had never even been there?
Lot left. Ruth, his granddaughter, returned. Ruth, a Moabite, descendant of the child born to Lot and his own daughter after the apocalyptic destruction of Sodom, reversed the journey. Ruth came back to the Jewish people from Sodom/Moab– and with her she brought the key to humanity’s redemption.
The maxim “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” sounds like a perfectly reasonable life philosophy. This vacuum cleaner is mine. I am happy to lend it to you but please return it in good shape, and when I borrow your drill I’ll try to do the same. But according to the mishna in Ethics of Our Fathers, some opinions, surprisingly, view this (perfectly reasonable) approach as “Sodom’s modus operandi“. What could be wrong with borders clearly marking my property and yours?
If Abraham was about kindness, about chessed—doors in all four directions so anyone in need had easy access, welcoming guests even while in pain from an operation, praying to save the lives of wicked people– Sodom’s mentality was the exact opposite.
In Sodom’s world view, chessed is the cruelest thing you can do to a person– because giving to someone makes the person needy and dependent. In an Ayn Rand tour de force, Sodom believed that social welfare weakens a person and makes them clingy and pathetic. Disallowing kindness and tzedakah, was ultimately for the person’s benefit. If you know that you can never borrow my vacuum cleaner—what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours—and you have no one to depend on but yourself, you will jolly well pull yourself up by your bootstraps and buy your own vacuum cleaner–and what gives a person greater joy than strength and independence?
THANKS, BUT NO THANKS!
Perhaps, Rabbi Miller suggests in Rising Moon, Lot went to Sodom, not despite it being the exact opposite of Abraham and his chessed, but precisely because it was the exact opposite of chessed. Perhaps Lot was suffering from the same malady that plagued Adam in the Garden of Eden, the thanks-but-no-thanks syndrome.
Because there is a problem with Chessed. Whether you have gotten your wealth because of Abraham, the way Lot did, or whether you have received your life and wife directly from G-d as Adam did, there is a knee-jerk reaction to wrench away from whomever is giving to you, to assert one’s independence. To say, thanks for thinking of me, but it’s OK, I’ve got it. No, thanks. I can manage on my own.
No matter how well meaning the giver is, no matter how focused he is on the receiver’s needs, the person receiving always feels a little erased by having to receive. All the ‘it was nothing; it was our pleazzzure; no problem’ not withstanding, having favors being done for you for most people is cringe inducing. It is embarrassing and diminishing to be on the receiving end of a transaction.
RECEIVING: HUMANITY’S PROBLEM
Way back in Gan Eden, Lot’s (and our) predecessor, Adam was called a kafui tov, an ingrate because he implied that his sin was G-d’s fault, since G-d had given him his wife, who had given him to eat. Instead of being grateful for all that G-d had done for him, his primal desire for independence made him feel threatened by G-d’s gifts.
It is fascinating that the word for ingrate, in Hebrew, and the word for “forced” share the same root (kafui, and kafah). A relationship can either open the door for the joy and wholeness of love, or it can feel like someone is wedging us into the corner and forcing us to acknowledge their presence.
Lot, even as he stood in the glow of Abraham’s sun, felt erased, diminished and marginalized, so he went to the place farthest away from Abraham that he could find: Sodom—whose motto was give nothing at all. Autonomy and independence is king.
True, at his crunch moment, when the Sodomites were clamoring at his door, he couldn’t bring himself to totally betray Abraham’s vision, yet, still, he left—and he couldn’t bring himself to go back.
The name Lot has the same numerical value as the word Adam, and Lot’s saga, his escape from chessed— and his return to a world of chessed— through his female descendant, can be seen as a microcosm of the human dilemma: do I lose or gain by entering into a relationship?
IT TAKES A WOMAN
It is interesting that because of the halacha that only a female Moabite can marry into the Jewish people, it had to be a woman— often cast as a receiver, biologically and metaphorically–who would bring back Sodom’s independence to the Jewish people. The purpose of this autonomy was not to be used for selfish me-time, but in order to allow the perfectly autonomous, self- aware individual, to open herself up to relationship. Not because she doesn’t exist, but because she does. It is Woman, created in the context of relationship, who could teach the world that whether one has more power of less is irrelevant in a world of true Chessed.
Circumstances had thrust Ruth, who was a former princess, into an incredibly humiliating situation. She was a convert in a strange land whose people looked askance at Moabites in general and at her in particular. Her only relative was a destitute fallen-from-grace widow, and their sustenance had to come from scavenging in a stranger’s field. And yet, Ruth does not seem to recognize this, nor seem to grasp the patheticness of her situation
When she asks Naomi if she can go out to search for grain, she makes it clear that she is not looking for food. She is looking for relationship. She is going on a journey of ‘metziat chen’. Metziat chen—looking for relationship– is the ultimate in vulnerability, perhaps even more than having to beg for your food. You have literally no control over whether someone likes you. Yet, Ruth was strong enough to be vulnerable.
The Midrash tells how she searched among the fields, going back and forth until she found exactly the kind of person she was looking for. It was the greatness of Naomi which had drawn her to Judaism, and in this journey, too, she would not settle for less.
And then she finds Boaz. He is incredibly kind to her, and Rabbi Miller’s close reading of the text and Midrash offers a fascinating subtext to every word of their conversation, revealing insight after mind-boggling insight. Yet, at the end of the conversation, Ruth is still the beggar, scrabbling for scraps.
But Ruth came from Moav and she never forgot that. She never lost her independent, autonomous self, even as she was drawn to the relationship of love, which Judaism offered her. Unlike Lot, and even Adam, she knew that the flow of giving and receiving is not hierarchical—it is mutual. Every giver needs a receiver, just as every receiver needs a giver. Relationship—opening yourself up, being vulnerable—is ultimately expansive not diminishing.
The Midrash, with exquisite sensitivity to nuances point this out in the words Ruth uses to tell Naomi about her activities in the fields of Boaz that day.
“The poor person does more for the rich person than the rich person does for the poor person. We derive this from Ruth’s statement to Naomi, “the name of the man with whom I dealt with today [is Boaz].” Ruth did not say “the name of the man who did something for me, but rather, “I did for him”, [as if to say] “I did so much for him, caused him so much good, all for a single piece of bread.” (Ruth Rabba, 5.9).
Adam and Lot felt erased, or imposed upon by the gifts bestowed upon them. It would take a very great woman, with a very great sense of self, to teach the world that chessed is a two-way channel.
The layers of meaning packed into every word of dialogue between Boaz and Ruth, is revealed in fascinating detail in Rising Moon and there is no way to abbreviate its richness– but suffice to say that though Ruth is compelled by circumstances to marry Boaz, not for one second does she lose her sense of self or feel commandeered into a compromised situation. At all times she allows herself to be open and vulnerable. Indeed Boaz recognizes and thanks her for this: “Your latest kindness is greater than the first, in that you have not turned to younger men, whether rich or poor”.
Adam hid in fear. Lots escaped because of his fear of losing himself. Ruth, the Moabite woman, who knew the antidote to the shame of receiving is the joy and satisfaction of relationship, returned–vulnerable, but fearless.
The message is not: give in, give up, disappear, erase yourself. Being a martyr is not really a relationship, in the same way that a sidewalk does not have a relationship with the person who strides upon it. If we fuse the self- aware woman of today with Bubby’s surety about the rightness of putting other people’s needs first, perhaps we can create a world of true chessed, where fortresses can be turned into bridges.
G-d calls our willingness to receive the Torah, “the chessed of our youth”(Jeremiah). Megillas Ruth starts with a famine–fear leaves us empty and hungry. Shavout, when we read the Book of Ruth, shares a root with the word sova, meaning satisfied. Love, and relationship with each other—and ultimately with G-d– leave us satiated and full.
This article is based almost entirely on ideas found in the book Rising Moon, by Rabbi Moshe Miller. A version of this article appeared in Mishpacha’s Family First, on Aish. com and in Hebrew translation in Tzarich Iyun.