In his essay “Megillat Ruth and the Story of Yehuda and Tamar: A Study in Biblical Contrast,” Rabbi Alex Israel of the Pardes Institute quotes the following the following from Ruth Rabba 2:14:
“Rabbi Zeira said: This Megillah contains not impurity nor purity, not the forbidden nor the permitted. Nonetheless, it has been written to publicize the extent of the reward that is bestowed upon people who engage in acts of kindness and welfare — gemilus chasadim.”
The Book of Ruth is all of four chapters, consisting of a total of 85 verses. It was hard to believe that this year alone, two scholars, each separately and independently from each other, wrote two high-quality extensive commentaries, one containing 487 pages, and the other 400 pages.
This column’s primary focus will be on the first, entitled Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy (Maggid Books, 2015) by Dr. Yael Ziegler, a lecturer in Bible at the Herzog Academic College and at Matan Jerusalem.
This book explains the narrative of the midrashic details that teach us the deeper meaning of the plot, subplot and events, especially the interactive roles played by Ruth and Boaz. The author demonstrate show these distinct individuals, each in their own way, perform small acts of kindness that ultimately serve to change the course of history thus restoring hope to the Jewish people of that most troubled era.
“This book is a book of chesed, but not just ordinary chesed,” Dr. Ziegler wrote to this author. “This book records acts of extraordinary chesed, the kind that even undermines one’s own interests in order to do chesed with the other. This is of course the case with Ruth, whose every act involves selflessness to the point of self-abnegation. While this chesed may not be expected from the ordinary citizen, it is an absolute sine qua non for our leaders, and especially our kings. Having so much power concentrated in the hands of one dynastic family is a recipe for tyranny and debauchery, unless this king is able to take his own interests out of the picture. Ruth is the worthy Mother of Kingship because of the specific type of chesed that she practices, advocates and models for her monarchical descendants.”
In the introduction to the book, Dr. Ziegler sets up the scene to follow in an excellent essay:
“The Book of Ruth documents the manner in which people lead their humdrum lives, without dramatic events, obvious conflicts, or extraordinary miracles. And yet, while it records ordinary interactions, it also features the extraordinary behavior of two great individuals who succeed in reversing the negative direction that society has taken during the period of the judges. This is a deeply optimistic story, despite its setting in one of the most troubled periods of biblical history. Ruth and Boaz teach us how two individuals can act in accordance with their own conscience and in contrast to the social alienation and apathy that prevails. In doing so, they offer the possibility of bringing this lawless and hopeless situation to an end, and pave the way toward a well-functioning society in which the nation can build a strong and unified house.”
Given the seriously troubled times that we all live in today, the Book of Ruth, as demonstrated in this commentary, will surely serve as a worthy tool that will point the way to a more focused, competent, honest, and truly efficient form of governance that ensures our personal as well as national safety.
This discussion must also seriously consider why the reading of Ruth occurs on the Festival of Shavuot. Rabbi Alex Israel, in his conclusion to the teaching cited above, explains the following:
“It certainly strikes me that Ruth and Matan Torah represent an ideal balance. The epic event of Matan Torah represents a national commitment to G-d and Torah, a bein adam laMakom event par excellence. The Book of Ruth is a perfect counterbalance. This is a story of a few private individuals, who also demonstrate absolute commitment. Commitment here is to people, to human dignity, to the values of bein adam lachavero.”
The other work dealing with Ruth is Rising Moon: Unraveling the Book of Ruth (Renana Publishers, 2015) by Rabbi Moshe Miller, with approbations by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Berel Wein, Dr. David Shatz and Professor Elisheva Carlebach. This work by Rabbi Miller, a distinguished musmach of Ner Yisrael, is formatted in the traditional verse/commentary page style.
In describing his method, Rabbi Miller concludes his preface:
“G-d judges, evaluates, and analyzes by never losing sight of the forest for the trees. Every detail is lovingly and individually assessed within its context, with the environment remaining in full view, even at the very moment that the individual is assessed alone. Although our vision is not divine, G-d’s approach is a model for our own judgment and evaluation. Text must never be uncoupled from its context.”
These are wise observations for all of us, as we read and learn from these profound commentaries this coming Shavuot.
Speaking of Shavuot itself, I conclude with the following teaching of a great interpreter of the American Sephardic community, Rabbi Eli Mansour: “The Custom to Read Megilat Ruth on Shavuot.”
“It is customary to read Megilat Ruth on Shavuot, and several different reasons have been given for this custom. The Mordechi in Masechet Megilla as cited by the Rama in Darchei Moshe explains that the story of Ruth took place during the harvest season, around the time of Shavuot, and it is therefore appropriate to read this story on this holiday. Others explain that at the time of Matan Torah, the Jewish people underwent a process of ‘conversion,’ for, like converts, they had been obligated only in the Seven Noachide Laws, and then committed themselves to the Torah’s 613 commands. [Interestingly, the Hebrew word gerut has the numerical value of 620, corresponding to the 613 Biblical commands plus the seven mitzvot instituted by the Sages.] Therefore, on the day we celebrate Matan Torah, we read the story of Ruth, which tells of Ruth’s conversion and acceptance of the mitzvot.”
Rabbi Mansour concludes this teaching by noting that “we read Megilat Ruth as a reminder that accepting the Torah included not only our obligations toward G-d, but also our obligations to other people. The story of Ruth is all about chesed. … We read this story to remind ourselves that kindness and sensitivity to other people is part and parcel of our acceptance of the Torah.”
A version of this article appeared in 2015.