Essential Essence: The Book of Ruth

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Rabbanit Shira Smiles,

Young women study Torah
Young women study Torah
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Summary of shiur (lecture) by Channie Koplowitz Stein

On each of the major holidays we read one of the five Megillot, each one bearing some relationship to that particular holiday. On Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth. While there are several reasons presented for this pairing, such as both Shavuot and Megillat Ruth take place in the harvest season, and that Ruth accepted the Torah and became a Jewess just as we accepted the Torah on Shavuot, our discussion will focus on how the Book of Ruth encapsulates and exemplifies the essence of Torah, the love of chessed (lovingkindness).

What is the essence of chessed from a Torah perspective? It is not helping someone from a sense of duty or as a matter of habit. The Torah wants us to love chessed and to search for opportunities to perform it. As the Sifsei Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Friedlander notes, chessed must involve a sense of caring for the other individual, with sensing his need, rather than gratifying my own ego or appeasing my conscience.

The Gemarrah itself tells us that a smile and a kind word that calms another human being and gives him support is a greater chessed than giving someone money, although he may need money too.

Chessed means diminishing one’s ego to really see the need of the other. It means not interjecting my awful experience into my friend’s lament when she needs reassurance and comfort. If I can diminish my own ego, continues the Sifsei Chaim, I can uproot the source of all negative characteristics.

Megillat Ruth offers us a model of both the positive and negative behaviors in this area. Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr, the Ohr Gedaliah, focuses on the names of the people in general. He cites the Medrash that Hashem praised Adam for naming all the animals, for Adam was able to recognize the essence of each animal and name it accordingly. In the same way, a person’s name reflects his essence, his characteristics, and his potential in fulfilling his mission through the gifts G-d gave him.

But the word shem, name, is also the root of shemamah, desolaton, for if a person does not use his gifts appropriately, they will be the source of his destruction, as we say, yemach shemo, may his name be erased.

Rav Eliyahu Yedid in Arba Imahot vem Hamelucha explains that the zeitgeist, the defining character of the era of shfot hashoftim, when the judges judged, was one of ego and selfishness. People were so involved with themselves and their own lives that they even failed to accord their leader Joshua who brought them into their land and led them in conquering the land the proper honor at his death.

It is against this backdrop that the story of Ruth takes place.

The first name we encounter in the Megillah is Elimelech, which translates to mean to me will come kingship. Indeed, Elimelech was of the tribe of Judah, but his egotism destroyed the potential he possessed. As Rabbi Yehoshua Bachrach explains in Mother of Royalty, based on the Midrash, Elimelech was extremely wealthy, but he couldn’t be bothered by people constantly knocking on his door for help during the time of famine in which the story takes place.

So he abandoned them all, mostly relatives whose land was allotted to them in the same area, and fled with his family to the land of Moab. To which people did he flee? To the people who refused to even sell food and water to the Israelites as they left Egypt, to the people who were the antithesis of chessed but who now epitomized Elimelech’s own mindset.

In contrast to Elimelech, we have Boaz whose name means "strength is within him". The Shem Mishmuel, Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain, the Sochatchover Rebbe, (edited by Rabbi Belovski) discusses both the name and the character of Boaz. Boaz knew he had the potential within him to be the progenitor of the six great men of the Davidic dynasty, culminating in the Messiah. But after seeing Ruth, Boaz realized that within her lay the trait of pride from Moab, refined for Jewish use, that was necessary for a successful monarchy.

Boaz was also aware that he himself was not the closest “redeemer” obligated to marry Ruth in a levirate marriage, yet he altruistically ceded his potential for greatness to Ruth for the greater good of the Jewish people. When Boaz gave Ruth six grains of barley, he was symbolically giving her his rights to these six descendents. It was at that moment, says the Shem Mishmuel, that the Davidic dynasty and the Messiah were born.

It is the altruism and chessed of both Boaz and Ruth that Hashem was looking for in the ones who would be the eventual rulers and kings of Bnei Yisroel.

A leader must also possess tremendous insight and sensitivity into the needs of others, both expressed and unexpressed. Just as Hashem tested Moshe Rabbenu with sheep, says the Sifsei Chaim, so did he also test the young David through his care for his sheep. Hashem observed how David grazed the sheep, first sending out the little lambs to chew on the uppermost, softest blades of grass. These were followed by the old sheep who grazed on the firm grass, and finally, David sent out the young adult sheep who could handle the tough, lowest parts of the grass. If David could understand the needs of the sheep and respond so well, surely he would be the proper shepherd of Hashem’s flock, Bnei Yisroel.

There is one name change in the Megillah, albeit not a permanent one. When Naomi returns to Bethlehem, the townspeople are dumbfounded when they recognize this once proud but almost broken woman as Naomi. She tells them not to call her Naomi, pleasant, but Mara, bitter.

The Nachalat Yosef, Rabbi Yosef Lipsulz explains that Naomi was not bemoaning her fate. Rather, she was saying that before she was self centered, interested only in her own pleasure. Now she is able to step out of herself and see the bitterness and suffering in the lives of others. Rabbi Shabbtai Sheftil Weiss further explains in Mishbetzot Zahav that Mara is here written with an aleph at the end in contrast to the usual heh. By saying this, Naomi was indicating that she changed because the Aleph, the One Master of the universe orchestrated events to improve her.

Rabbi Weiss continues with an analysis of the names of Naomi’s daughters-in-law. The name Ruth, he says, comes from ro'atah, she saw. Ruth saw and was sensitive to the pain of her mother-in-law whereas Orpah turned her back, the nape of her neck, her orephon Naomi.

What is important, then, is not only doing chessed, for Orpah had buried her husband and stayed with Naomi for some time before Naomi decided to return to her home. But Orpah did not love chessed and therefore did not continue with Naomi. As the Sifsei Chaim points out, Orpah was so caught up in herself that she could not see the greatness of others and turned her back on Naomi, while Ruth was able to see beyond herself and perform endless acts of chessed.

Boaz and Ruth were married only one night before Boaz died, but that night Ruth conceived. From these two paradigms of chessed a son was born whom the women of the town named Oved, servant. As Rabbi Bachrach points out, this name was the highest accolade anyone could be given, to be called a servant of Hashem as Moshe was, to go the step beyond what is required or expected, what Orpah could not do.

The foil for an Oved is a Ploni Almoni, a nameless, anonymous one. This is the name our holy book gives to Elimelech’s brother, the close relative who refused to enter into the levirate marriage with Ruth.

Rabbi Frand, basing his discussion on the writing of the Nachalat Yosef, provides us with a deep and disturbing concept. The first redeemer’s name was Tov. He declined the marriage for what appears to be appropriate halakhic reasoning. Yet, because he could not go the one step further, to reach beyond the comfort zone, his name fell into oblivion while the name Boaz became forever linked to the Davidic dynasty he originated.

Tov did nothing wrong. Neither, however, did he do something right. Having one’s name inscribed in the holy books is not a right to be forfeited by doing something wrong; it is a right earned by doing something extraordinary. Boaz dared do what Ploni Almoni would not, and he thus merited memorialization in the holy texts.

The Nachalat Yosef tells us that Boaz was a role model for us in how to sensitize ourselves to others. He cites a courteous but seemingly meaningless exchange between Boaz and his reapers. When we first encounter Boaz in the narrative, Boaz calls out to the reapers, “Hashem is with you,” and they respond, “May Hashem bless you.”

What was so unusual about this exchange that it was recorded in the Megillah? In a time when everyone thought only of himself, Boaz was able to see godliness in his workers, to recognize that they were all created in the image of God, to accord them respect and dignity. When you treat human beings with dignity, you are, by extension, treating God with dignity. When you take care of God’s children, the response will be, “Hashem will bless you.”

Each of us carries the name of God within us, says Rabbi Zvi Meir Silverberg in Sichot Hitchazkut. Just as the commandment tells us we may not defile the name of Hashem nor use it in vain, so must we also keep ourselves pure and not waste the lofty abilities Hashem has bestowed on us in vain. We must each recognize the potential for greatness within ourselves, says Rabbi Friefeld, so that we become a receptacle for Hashem being with us.

Let us live up to our names, never letting them become a source of destruction, so that they always retain the blessing of Hashem is with you.