By Rabbi Arie Strikovsky
Like the Book of Job, the Book of Ruth opens with a series of catastrophes occurring in one family, in five consecutive episodes:
Although the text does not specify any sin which cause the tragedies, the Talmud and Midrash venture an explanation. I prefer R. Joshua’s view, mentioned in Zohar Hadash on Ruth (77a): “Elimelech did not sin, but he departed from the community, and the community’s merit, therefore, did not protect him; when the people of Bethlehem were remembered by God, he was not included in their redemption.”
On the verse, “And she was left [vatisha’er] with her two sons,” R. Hanina, son of R. Abahu, states, “She became like the remnant of Menahot [flour offerings]” (Ruth Rabbah 2:8), with reference to the verse, “Then those two [Mahlon and Chilion] also died, so the woman was left without her two sons and without her husband.” R. Hanina comments, “She became like a remnant of remnants” (Ibid. 2:10). According to the prescribed law, the priest would take from the mincha [flour offering] a handful which included oil, flour, and an expensive, imported fragrance and burn them upon the altar. The remainder was eaten by the priests. The Midrash describes both tragedies according to this paradigm. First, Elimelech, the head of the family, died. He was like the chosen handful. Next, the sons, the remnant, were consumed. Their widows remained, the ghostly remnants of the remnants.
The Midrash differentiates between Elimelech, who fled to Moab because of famine, and his sons, who married Moabite women and apparently intended to settle there. Elimelech ascended as a burnt offering upon God’s altar (Menahot 110a; Tosaphot: uMichael). His sons were consumed in the land into which they had assimilated.
After her sons’ deaths, Naomi leaves for Bethlehem. She left because of hardship, and she returns because of hardship. Here the plot begins. Three times, Naomi begs her daughters-in-law to return to their homes. They utterly reject the first suggestion (Ruth 1:10). The second suggestion convinces Orpah to return, and the third convinces Ruth to cling to Naomi. Prima facie, Naomi begs Ruth to return home. But if she meant it, she should have urged pragmatic considerations. Instead, she says provocatively, “See, your sister-in-law has returned to her people and her gods. Go, follow your sister-in-law” (1:14). Go, and return to Kermosh, God of Moab! The provocation succeeds. “Ruth replied, ‘Do not urge me to leave you . . .your God is my God . . . Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you'” (1:16-17). Ruth demonstrates her commitment by swearing in God’s name (“Thus and more . . .”) after having clearly accepted the God of Israel as her God (“Your God is my God”).
Joshua used a similar tactic when he told the people, “‘You will not be able to serve the Lord’ . . . But the people replied, ‘No, we will serve the Lord'” (Joshua 24:19-21).
Maimonides employs a similar method in the procedure for accepting converts: “When a heathen comes forth . . . and upon investigation, no ulterior motive is found, the court should say to him, ‘Do you not know that Israel is at present oppressed?’ . . . If he answers, ‘I know, and indeed, I am not worthy,’ he should be accepted immediately.”
Naomi sets a greater challenge. She tells Ruth, “Don’t you know that my lot is far more bitter than yours, for the hand of the Lord has struck out against me?” (1:11). Behold, I’m like Job; I can’t promise you God’s help.
By using this method, Naomi evokes from the depth of Ruth’s soul the most profound expression of commitment and devotion. Naomi, who knows her daughters-in-law, knows that only Ruth was capable of withstanding the challenges of conversion and absorption, not to mention the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship. Boaz compares Ruth to Abraham (2:11), but there is a contrast with Abraham as well. God encourages Abraham to leave for the Promised Land by promising great benefits, while Ruth hears only painful words, lovingly spoken by Naomi. Ruth’s response, Al tifge’i bi, can be interpreted in two ways: Don’t beg me! And, in a secondary sense, Don’t hurt me! I have no Moabite identity. Your nation is my nation, and your God is my God. As the Midrash says, “I made up my mind to convert, but preferably, through you” (Ruth Rabbah 2:22).
When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole city says, “Can this be Naomi?” (1:19). After only ten years, the change is so great! Naomi replies, like Job, “Call me Mara, for Shaddai has made my lot very bitter. The lord has dealt harshly with me [ana bi]” (1:20). The Midrash comments, “All His concern was about me.” Rashi adds, “God testified that I was wicked.” Ibn Ezra refers to the verse, “You keep sending fresh witnesses against me” (Job 10:17). In the very city where she expected God’s help, Naomi finds that God continues to torment her. This feeling is sharpened by the Midrash which states that she and Ruth walked to Bethlehem on Passover. It was important to them to reach the blessed Bethlehem as early as possible, and then they got that reception!
Naomi feels this agony when facing these critical witnesses and seeing the field she had sold yielding its crop to the purchaser. God remembered His nation, but not her. And what about Ruth? How does she feel when she is overlooked? Her very presence is testimony to the family’s sins.
The Midrash attributes to Abraham the expectation, “When a guest comes to a city, one asks him about matters of food and drink” (Rashi on Genesis 20:11). Do the people of Bethlehem act accordingly? What is Ruth feeling while she seeks a field and a suitable group of gleaners? Would she be the target of hostile looks? Does she hear the foreman’s humiliating tone?
Naomi-Mara and Ruth are both yearning for redemption. Mara wanrs to return to being Naomi, and Ruth the Moabite wants to be accepted in Bethlehem. According to the rabbis, the newly widowed Boaz wants to be delivered from the fear of loneliness. According to the Zohar, even God, so to speak, needs some assistance because, “When the pauper is in a state of distress, he quarrels against the Most High [i.e., with God]. The one who provides for the poor makes peace with God” (Zohar Hadash, Ruth 75). Thus, Boaz made peace between God and the embittered Naomi.
Naomi’s and Ruth’s immediate concern was physical survival. Naomi did not suggest that Ruth demean herself by gleaning in the barley field. Naomi gave her blessing only after Ruth volunteered. Ruth, as a new gleaner, needed the master of the field’s consent. We know from Talmudic and Near Eastern sources that gleaners often quarreled among themselves. Ruth, who was sensitive and shy, also needed the master’s encouragement.
Behold, Boaz comes onto the scene. The Bible doesn’t say what attracted Boaz to Ruth. The rabbis, however, say that he observed that she was modest and that she was scrupulous about he halachic restrictions on gleaning. Similarly, the rabbis say that Ruth was exceptionally beautiful. After her graceful comments, Boaz warms to her. He begins by saying, “Stay here close to my girls . . . And when you are thirsty, . . . drink some of the water that the men have drawn” (2:9). She responds, “Why are you so kind as to single me out, when I am a foreigner?” In return, he blesses her in the name of “the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge.” Ruth’s response, “. . . though I am not so much as one of your maidservants,” has an overtone of marital agreement. See Abigail’s similar response to David’s proposal (I Samuel 25:41). Apparently, Boaz did not get the message. Instead, he offered her a seat with the reapers.
Meanwhile, Naomi-Mara feels that God has cast a bitter lot for her and that her Bethlehem acquaintances have abandoned her. When she hears Ruth’s news, however, she bursts forth with thanks to God. Her spirit is rekindled. From this moment on, God’s spirit directs her counsels. When Ruth relates happily, “He even told me, ‘Stay close to the [male]workers,'” (2:21), Naomi remarks gently, “It is best, my daughter, that you go out with his girls” (2:22).
Ruth doesn’t believe she has a chance of marrying Boaz and is considering marrying one of the field workers. But Naomi believes that Ruth should focus on Boaz. Later, at the threshing floor, Boaz will compliment Ruth on her kindness in preferring him to younger men. Ruth must marry Boaz or another family member, however, if she is to fulfill the oath she swore never to leave Naomi. A redeemer from outside the family would not make room for an ex-mother-in-law.
Ruth continues to glean in Boaz’s field, in increasing frustration. Every glance and every nod from Boaz stirs some hope. But the harvest season passes with no proposal offered. At this point, Naomi decides that Ruth should take drastic action to wake Boaz up.
The text says that there was love between Ruth and Naomi. Between the lines, one can also hear the whisper of a love song between Ruth and Boaz. But at their encounter at the threshing floor, a legal obstacle appears: Ploney Almoney (John Doe) is a closer relative to Naomi than Boaz is. Therefore, according to the law, he is the first in line to marry Ruth. Boaz promises to settle the matter. Naomi, again, bolsters Ruth’s faith that Boaz will act to her good. All of us breathe a sigh of relief when Ploney Almoney refuses to marry Ruth. Surely, he does not deserve to be Ruth’s husband, much less the progenitor of the Messiah!
In the grand finale, all the blessings are fulfilled (1:9, 2:12 and 19; 4:11-15, Genesis 49:10), and the bells of redemption herald David’s birth. Retroactively, Ruth and Boaz perform a double tikkun: Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, acted as a prostitute in order to have a son from Judah; Lot’s daughters slept with their father in order to continue humankind. Ruth and Boaz at the threshing floor mended these wrongful acts. Like Tamar, Ruth approaches the man, but she does not act like a prostitute. Like Lot’s daughters, she comes at night to a sleeping man. Boaz, unlike Judah and Lot, was aware of what was going on, so he and Ruth form their bond without a trace of sinfulness. The threshing floor [goren] could be used for ritual prostitution (Hosea 9:1 and the epic Refaim from Ugarit). Here, it is a meeting-place for pure love.
It took ten years in Moab for the family to disappear. It took less than a year in Bethlehem for the ghostly remnants of the family to be rebuilt. A family of four–father, mother, and two sons–left Bethlehem, and a family of four was rebuilt in Bethlehem–Boaz, with Ruth and Naomi, acting as Obed’s mothers, and Ruth acting as Naomi’s daughter. Thus we have a father, a mother, a son, and a daughter.
The book also contains a chiasm: All the catastrophes at the beginning are healed at the end. Mahlon is replaced by Obed; Elimelech is replaced by King David; Mara is replaced by Naomi; and Ruth the gleaner is replaced by Ruth, the royal mother of Israel.
Ruth’s and Naomi’s redemption is not, however, handed to them on a silver platter. Naomi’s redemption comes about in stages: First, “starvation insurance” in the form of Ruth’s gleaning Boaz’s field. This assured bread for Naomi until the next harvest. When Ruth visited Boaz at the threshing floor, he gave her “six barleys,” lest she return to her mother-in-law empty-handed [reikam] (3:17). This echoes Naomi’s complaint, “The Lord has brought me back empty” (1:20). Later on, Boaz redeemed the field Naomi had sold and restores her status as a landowner.
In the beginning, Naomi said ironically, “Even if I thought there was hope for me . . . and I again bore sons,” (1:16) and compared herself to Job. Job eventually got more children, and so did Naomi. “The women said to Naomi, . . . ‘He [Obed] is born of your daughter-in-law, who . . . is . . . to your better than seven sons'” (4:15). “A son is born to Naomi.” Just as Job’s friends eventually came to cheer him (42:11), so Naomi-Mara is cheered by the women of Bethlehem.
A similar, gradual absorption process happened to Ruth. The residents of Bethlehem overlooked her at their first encounter. Boaz’s foreman referred to her as “a Moabite maiden.” Until her marriage, she continued to be known as “Ruth the Moabite.” Boaz’s remark, “All the people in my town know what a woman of valor [eshet hayil] you are” (3:11), is fulfilled when the people compare her to Rachel, Leah, and Tamar (4:11-12). Once she has given birth to Obed, she finds the people of Bethlehem a supportive group of neighbors (4:14-17). And in the eternal House of David, she joins the Matriarchs as one of the Mothers of the Jewish People.