Why Rut

In memory of my friend Malka Schindler, who passed away a few days before Shavuot, and embodied so many of Rut’s attributes. May her memory be a blessing.

Why Rut? Why does a story of a widowed woman refusing to leave her mother in law, touching as it is, merit inclusion in the Tanakh? More pointedly, why is it this humble not particularly eventful story that is read on Shavuot, the festival commemorating the most earth shattering event of Jewish history, Matan Torah?

To download the source sheet click here and to download the article as a pdf click here.

 

Why Rut?

“I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it… Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.” 
Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate

Why Rut? Why does a story of a widowed woman refusing to leave her mother in law, touching as it is, merit inclusion in the Tanakh? More pointedly, why is it this humble not particularly eventful story that is read on Shavuot, the festival commemorating the most earth shattering event of Jewish history, Matan Torah?

This sense that Rut, whilst a lovely tale lacks something of the drama we usually expect from a Biblical story, appears to be the motivating line behind a well-known midrash (Rut Rabbah, 2:14).

Rebbi Zeira said: This story has neither prohibition nor permission, neither impurity nor purity, for what was it written?

The midrash answers, that the story of Rut teaches the reward of gomlei hasadim, those who perform kindness with others. And what is this reward? That from Rut and Boaz’s union will emerge David, future king of Israel, and the lineage descended from him.

These two elements: kindness and the future Davidic dynasty – are the traditional explanations to our question of ‘why Rut?’ Yet by themselves they appear unsatisfactory – can a whole story be explained simply by reference to its final verse, that on account of the kindness of the story’s heroine, her descendant will be a future king? What about the body of the story itself?

When Does Rut Take Place?

As with the study of any book of Tanakh, our first question must be when does Rut take place? The answer is indicated in the opening words of the Megilla:

ויהי בימי שפוט השופטים…

And it was in the days when the judges judged…

It stands to reason that the judges referred to are the leaders of Israel in the eponymous book of Shoftim (Judges), who led Israel for many generations after the death of Yehoshua. Yet the simplicity of this answer is deceptive, for if the story of Rut and Naomi occurred in the days of the book of Shoftim, why is it not included in that book? After all, Shoftim does not comprise a single narrative but is made up of many individual stories taking place over many generations. Would it have been too much to add another few chapters to Shoftim to include Rut’s story?

The answer to this becomes obvious once one contemplates the overall theme of Shoftim. Beginning with the leadership vacuum after the death of Yehoshua, the hope is clearly that a leader, potentially even a king, will emerge to unite the people and complete the conquest of the land. This hope never materialises, and over time the book of Shoftim depicts the disintegration of Israelite society on political, moral, social and religious levels. The book ends with possibly the most depressing and shocking of all biblical stories – that of pilegesh b’giva – the rape and murder of a defenceless woman, whose body is then cut up into twelve pieces and sent throughout the land (Shoftim 19:30). ‘All of those who saw it said:

Such a thing has never happened nor been seen from the day the children of Israel came up from the land of Egypt”’

The ensuing attempt to exact justice from the perpetrators results in the largest civil war in Jewish history, with thousands of dead on either side. The book’s refrain, and its final line, captures the sense of anarchy and despair (21:25):

בימים ההם אין מלך בישראל איש הישר בעיניו יעשה

In those days there was no king in Israel, each man would do as was right in his own eyes.

By contrast the story of Rut is one of selflessness, altruism and care for others. Moreover it does not appear to be a story of leaders, of great men, but rather of simple common people. It cannot be included in Shoftim for it is, thematically, in utter opposition.

We will return to the question of the location of the book of Rut within Tanakh at the close of this essay, but for now will explore a motif which links Rut’s to events long before her time.

The Meeting At The Well

In 1981, the Berkley professor Robert Alter, published The Art of Biblical Narrative – a book which has possibly influenced traditional biblical scholars more than any other work to emerge from the halls of academia. In it, Alter was deeply critical of the mainstream of Biblical academia, which in its obsession to uncover the origins and sources of Biblical texts, ends up ignoring, or worse completely misreading, the stories of the Bible. He attempted to return to the enjoyment of reading the text itself, and to regain a sensitivity of the literary tools with which the Bible conveys its message.

One of the most triumphant and brilliant chapters in the book is one in which Alter presents what he calls the type-scene. The type-scene refers to a trope or event which appears in multiple locations throughout the Tanakh. Far from being a crude cut-and-paste tool to depict similar events in different stories, sensitivity to the phenomenon reveals a powerful technique of characterisation and foreshadowing transmitted through the subtle modulations between the repetitions of the scene. Alter’s favourite example is that of a man meeting his future wife at a well, a fact already noted by Chazal (Shemot Rabba 1):

שלשה נזדווגו להם זווגיהם מן הבאר, יצחק יעקב ומשה,

Three met their partners at the well, Yitzchak, Yaakov and Mosheh 

If we enumerate the essential ingredients of a well-scene we will be able to see the deviations from the norm that each individual scene provides, thus giving deft characterisation to individual protagonists. What makes for a classic well-scene? Alter lists the following elements:

  1. A man leaves his home…
  2. Arrives in a foreign land…
  3. Meets a girl (normally described as נערה)…
  4. From his family…
  5. At a well…
  6. She runs home to tell of his arrival…
  7. He’s invited to a meal and they are betrothed.

If we now consider how each of the stories we know diverts from the above list we will see how ingeniously the technique functions to provide subtle characterisation in each of the stories.

For Yitzchak, the most obvious difference is that he does not leave home at all to find a wife. Rather it is his father’s servant who journeys to a foreign land to find a wife at a well for Yitzchak (Bereishit 24:10-61). As in the type-scene, so in his life, Yitzchak is passive, acted upon and for by others, bound to the altar by his father at the beginning of his life, and deceived by his son at the end of his life. By contrast, it is Rivka’s flurry of activity in her hurry to welcome Eliezer that strikes the reader – she is the only woman in Tanakh to draw water from a well – a flurry of activity we will see once again years later when she speedily disguises her younger son as her old son to in order to receive’s Yitzchak’s deathbed blessing (Bereishit 27).

Yaakov, by contrast with his father, does indeed leave his country for a foreign land to find his wife (Bereishit 29:1-20). In fact, he flees from his brother’s wrath, presaging a long life that will be spent on the road. Most poignantly, on his arrival in Padan Aram, the well at which he meets his future bride is stopped up by a large rock. If the well is a symbol of love and fertility, then its blocking up must surely hint at the infertility and heartbreak that will accompany his life with Rachel. Just as he struggles to shift the rock, so Yaakov’s life is one of struggle – with his brother, his father-in-law, his wives, and his sons. So too stones are a constant theme in his life – from the stone he lays his head on in Bet El to the peace treaty marked by a stone monument that he eventually concludes with Lavan. Overall Yaakov’s life is a struggle with the hard unyielding nature of things, and as his night-time adversary will eventually say, שרית עם אלוקים ועם אנשים ותוכל ‘you have struggled with God and with man, and prevailed’ (Bereishit 32:29).

The most striking aspect about Mosheh’s well-scene, as he flees from Egypt to Midyan, is its brevity – only six verses (Shemot 2:15-20). Moreover although it is Tzipora he ends up marrying, at the well he is only described as meeting the ‘seven daughters of Reuel’, without any individuation. Both these details reflect, early on in our acquaintance with Mosheh, that in contrast to the stories of Bereishit, we are not provided with a window into Mosheh’s interior life. He is the national liberator and leader, a public figure, with only small glimpses ever given of his personal life. Another striking detail: as the daughters run back to their father to tell him of what has transpired, they describe him as איש מצרי, an Egyptian man. Mosheh does not correct them, and the phrase alludes to one of the greatest paradoxes of Mosheh’s life: although revered as Israel’s greatest prophet, who led Israel out of Egypt, to Sinai, and though the desert, he nevertheless always carries with him something of an outsider status, perhaps most evocatively summed up in the name he gives son גרשום, כי אמר גר הייתי בארץ נכריהGershom, for I was a stranger in a foreign land (Shemot 18:3). (I have included a brilliant midrash on the ish mitzri verse, in the attached source-sheet).

Alter summarises the above as follows: ‘One can clearly see that the betrothal type-scene, far from being a mechanical means of narrative prefabrication for conveying the reader from a celibate hero to a married one, is handled with a flexibility that makes it a supple instrument of characterization and foreshadowing’.

And with all this, we finally arrive back at Megillat Rut. Widowed and impoverished, Rut has accompanied her mother-in-law back to Bet Lehem rather than returning home to Moav, ignoring the warnings of how little she can expect in Israel. Desperate for food she goes to glean in the fields of a distant relative, Boaz. A foreigner, without any male protection, her prospects do not look good. And yet when Boaz sees her, he inquires as to the identity of the na’ara (maiden) and something is stirred within him (Rut 2:8-9).

ח וַיֹּאמֶר בֹּעַז אֶל-רוּת הֲלוֹא שָׁמַעַתְּ בִּתִּי, אַל-תֵּלְכִי לִלְקֹט בְּשָׂדֶה אַחֵר, וְגַם לֹא תַעֲבוּרִי, מִזֶּה; וְכֹה תִדְבָּקִין, עִם-נַעֲרֹתָי.  ט עֵינַיִךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר-יִקְצֹרוּן, וְהָלַכְתְּ אַחֲרֵיהֶן–הֲלוֹא צִוִּיתִי אֶת-הַנְּעָרִים, לְבִלְתִּי נָגְעֵךְ; וְצָמִת, וְהָלַכְתְּ אֶל-הַכֵּלִים, וְשָׁתִית, מֵאֲשֶׁר יִשְׁאֲבוּן הַנְּעָרִים.

And Boaz said to Rut: listen to me well my daughter. Do not glean in another field, and do not leave here, but stay close to my maidens. Keep your eyes on the field they are harvesting, and follow after them. I have ordered the youths not to molest you. If you become thirsty, go to the jugs and drink from what the youths have drawn.

Completely unnecessarily, unexpectedly, almost artificially, the drawing of water from a well is alluded to. Unaware of the significance of a well, one would undoubtedly miss the reference, yet sensitive to it from the preceding examples it leaps out of the text at us. It’s meaning is certainly not lost on the overwhelmed Rut who immediately responds (2:10,13):

וַתִּפֹּל, עַל-פָּנֶיהָ, וַתִּשְׁתַּחוּ, אָרְצָה; וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַדּוּעַ מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ לְהַכִּירֵנִי–וְאָנֹכִי, נָכְרִיָּה….  וַתֹּאמֶר אֶמְצָא-חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אֲדֹנִי, כִּי נִחַמְתָּנִי, וְכִי דִבַּרְתָּ, עַל-לֵב שִׁפְחָתֶךָ; וְאָנֹכִי לֹא אֶהְיֶה, כְּאַחַת שִׁפְחֹתֶיךָ.

Falling on her face she bowed to the ground, and to him, “Why have I found favour in your eyes that you should take special notice of me though I am a stranger… May I continue to win your favour, because you have comforted me, and because you have spoken to the heart of your maidservant…

As with all the other meetings at the well, the meeting is immediately followed by a meal between the couple (2:14) and within a short space of time their marriage has been arranged and concluded.

On the surface all the expected trappings of the type-scene are included, and yet, upon deeper inspection, the normal components have been radically reordered. Most obviously, where all the other instances involved men journeying to find a wife, in our case the protagonist is a woman. Where in other cases, the journey is from west to east, in our case it is from east to west, a movement towards the land of Israel rather than away from it. Gender and geography are reversed 180 degrees, and to our astonishment, the widow from Moav who refused to leave her mother-in-law, is placed in a position that only two of the forefathers, and the greatest prophet and leader of Israel, have ever merited to hold. As Alter puts it:

The type-scene is a means of attaching that moment to a larger pattern of historical and theological meaning. If Yitzchak and Rivka, as the first man and wife born into the covenant God has made with Avraham and his seed, provide certain paradigmatic traits for the future historical destiny of Israel, and association of later figures with the crucial junctures of that first story – will imply some connection of meaning, some further working-out of the original covenant.

To discern more precisely what this ‘further working-out’ is about, we will now explore another connection between Rut and a much earlier story.

Rut and Avraham

Boaz explains the special favour he is showing Rut is on account of what he has heard about her (2:11).

I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband – how you left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and went to a people you had not known before

The parallel with Avraham is overwhelming, whose personal story also began with an instruction from God to leave his home on a journey to the land of Israel (Bereishit 12:1).

Go for yourself from your country, from your birthplace, and from the house of your father to the land which I will show you.

The parallel is all the more striking in the Hebrew as every significant element in the verse in Bereishit is reworked in the version in Rut.

לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ

וַתַּעַזְבִי אָבִיךְ וְאִמֵּךְ וְאֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתֵּךְ וַתֵּלְכִי אֶל עַם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַעַתְּ תְּמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם

The link between the stories is strengthened and confirmed when we read Naomi’s words of exclamation upon hearing of the meeting between Rut and Boaz (2:20):

וַתֹּאמֶר נָעֳמִי לְכַלָּתָהּ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לַיקֹוָק אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָזַב חַסְדּוֹ אֶת הַחַיִּים וְאֶת הַמֵּתִים

Blessed is the Lord who did not forsake his kindness

Her words, echo almost identically, the exclamation of Avraham’s servant upon discovering that the young woman he has met at the well in Aram is none other than a relative of his master, and eminently suitable as a spouse for Yitzchak (Bereishit 24:27):

וַיֹּאמֶר בָּרוּךְ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵי אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָזַב חַסְדּוֹ וַאֲמִתּוֹ מֵעִם אֲדֹנִי

Blessed is the Lord, the God of my master Avraham, who did not forsake his kindness

The reason for the association with Avraham is clear. If Avraham, was the original and paradigmatic convert, who moved from East to West, the parallels in Megillat Rut imply that she is following a similar trajectory of equal significance, journeying into the unknown, she becomes a sort of matriarch by adoption, her kindness standing in place of an actual genealogical connection. As Avraham will found a religion and a nation, so too will Rut become, in the phrase of the gemara (Bava Batra 91b), ima shel malchut, the mother of kingship, the ancestor of King David, from whom the Mashiach will eventually emerge.

In fact, we could even push the analogy to Avraham further and point out the contrasts as well as the comparisons.

  1. Avraham is commanded to leave his land (Bereishit 12:1). Rut is not commanded, in fact Nomi tells her explicitly not to go (Rut 1:12)
  2. God promises Avraham that he will make him into a גוי גדול, a great nation, (Bereishit 12:2) yet Nomi tells Rut that she has no chance of future children if she returns to Bet Lehem (Rut 1:11)

וַתֹּאמֶר נָעֳמִי שֹׁבְנָה בְנֹתַי לָמָּה תֵלַכְנָה עִמִּי הַעוֹד לִי בָנִים בְּמֵעַי וְהָיוּ לָכֶם לַאֲנָשִׁים:

And Nomi said, ‘Return my daughters, why should you come with me, do I still have children in me to be husbands for you?

  1. Avraham leaves with his wife – the major guarantee of future generations – and all his household, full of security (Bereishit 12:5). Rut, the widow, by contrast, leaves with Nomi her aged mother-in-law and nothing else (Rut 1:7)
  2. God promises to guide Avraham to the land to which he is travelling אל הארץ אשר אראך, to the land that I will show you. (Bereishit 1:1). Boaz by contrast emphasises that Rut journeyed forward without any idea of what would become of her אֶל עַם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַעַת, to a people you did not know (Rut 2:11).

Professor Yair Zakovitch, noting these differences, concludes: The inverse parallel between Rut and Avraham testifies that the Moavite woman who knows no self-interest, who uproots herself from her people and cleaves to her mother-in-law with no hope of becoming a mother herself, is a more noble figure even than the father of the nation, than Avraham. (Mikraot B’Eretz HaMaraot, p71)

The connection of Rut to Avraham fits very well with the type-scene of the meeting at the well described above – Rut is included in a model that only two of the Avoth and the greatest prophet and national leader ever merit to have applied to them. Yet whilst she is part of this chain; she is also the opposite of it – where they are part of a lineage, whose genealogy is established, Rut is counter to the scene both in terms of gender and geography. She is Avraham but greater than Avraham who left her land and people not out of a promise but out of loyalty.

The Bridge Between Shoftim and Shmuel

At the outset of this piece we asked when the story of Rut takes place, noting that Rut begins ‘in the days when the judges judged’ (1:1), in other words at the time of the book of Shoftim (Judges). We noted too that Rut has to comprise a separate book given that its theme of kindness and loyalty is so opposite to the anarchy and corruption of Shoftim.

Shoftim is placed directly before the book of Shmuel (Samuel) in the Bible. Where Shoftim details the decline of Israelite society on moral, political and religious levels, ending with the despair of civil war and societal breakdown, Shmuel begins with the birth of the prophet Shmuel, and focuses on the beginning of kingship in Israel first through Shaul and then through David. With no explicit connection made between the end of Shoftim and the beginning of Shmuel, the reader is left to wonder how the chasm between the despair of the former and the optimism of the latter is bridged.

It appears that Megillat Rut is the answer. Towards the end of the story, the local women congratulate Nomi on her marvellous daughter-in-law Rut, using the interesting phrase,

טובה לך משבעה בנים

She is better to you than seven sons (Rut 4:15)

Such a phrase appears in only one other place in Tanakh – at the very beginning of Shmuel! Elkana, the future father of Shmuel, attempts to comfort Hannah, his barren wife, futilely telling her:

טוב לך מעשרה בנים

I am better for you than ten sons (Shmuel 1:8)

The obscure phrase makes a clear point. While Megillat Rut begins in the world of Shoftim, it ends in the world of Shmuel. Its four short chapters comprise the bridge between the societal disintegration of one, and the optimism and progress of the other – a point made explicit by the genealogy list that concludes Megillat Rut:

וישי הוליד את דוד

And Yishai gave birth to David (Rut 4:21)

The great-grandson of the Moabite widow, who showed such kindness to her mother-in-law and was in turn shown kindness by Boaz, will be David king of Israel and the central character of the book of Shmuel.

The power of this point lies in its simplicity – that if the world is to leave the nightmare it finds itself in and move forward to a brighter day, it is not leaders, armies, and technology that will bring this about, but as Vasily Grossman so vividly put it, the simple acts of everyday kindness from one human being to another.

Rut and Shavuot

What is the meaning of all this on Shavuot?

Firstly, a reminder that although the giving of the Torah was accompanied by thunder and lightning, flashes and noise, it is the simple small kindnesses that people do for one another that moves history and the covenant onward.

Secondly, that the most important message may often come from the most unexpected source: the Moabites, who refused to give Israel water and safe-passage as they journeyed through the desert (Devarim 2:26-29), renowned for their cruelty – ruthlessness if you like – are nevertheless the people from which Rut, ima shel malkhut, emerges. To not judge individuals by the collectives from which they emerge is a message more necessary now than ever as we witness the despicable price tag attacks in Israel, and resurgent far-right politics across Europe.

Finally, that Jewish tradition understands the original revelation at Sinai to have been the conversion of the whole people, from recently freed slaves to members of the covenant. It is this national conversion that we recall and re-commit ourselves to on Shavuot. If Avraham was the first convert, who made the original journey, it is Rut who demonstrates that the movement from East to West, literal or metaphorical, is an ongoing possibility.

חייבין אנו להזהר במצות צדקה יותר מכל מצות עשה, שהצדקה סימן לצדיק זרע אברהם אבינו שנאמר כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה את בניו לעשות צדקה, ואין כסא ישראל מתכונן ודת האמת עומדת אלא בצדקה שנאמר בצדקה תכונני, ואין ישראל נגאלין אלא בצדקה שנאמר ציון במשפט תפדה ושביה בצדקה

We are obligated to recall the commandment of tzedaka (charity/righteousness) above every other mitzvah, for tzedaka is the sign of the seed of Avraham Avinu, as is said, ‘for I know that he will command his children to act with righteousness’, (Bereishit 18:19) and the throne of Israel is not whole, nor does true religion stand except through tzedaka, as is said ‘with righteousness you shall be established’ (Yeshayahu 54:14), nor are Israel ever to be redeemed except through tzedaka, as is written, ‘Zion will be redeemed through justice and those who return to her through charity’ (Yeshayahu 1:27)Rambam, Laws of Gifts To The Poor, 10:1


I was privileged to study Rut with my teacher Dr Yael Ziegler a number of years ago and to have edited some of her wonderful written shiurim on Rut and much of the above was undoubtedly absorbed during those shiurim.

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