מגילת רות לילדים
מגילת רות לילדיםצילום: באדיבות המצלם

The upcoming holiday of Shavuot evokes the receiving of the Torah, flowers and greenery, and of course delicious dairy food.

It is also the holiday of “malkhut,” or kingship, when we read the book of Ruth, which recounts the backstory behind the emergence of the royal house of David.

Shavuot is the culmination of 49 days of counting the Omer, wherein each week is categorized by one of the Kabbalistic sefirot. The final one of these sefirot is Malkhut, described by the Zohar as “having nothing of her own.” Notwithstanding its connotations of royalty, Malkhut is understood to be a void that receives all of the preceding weeks’ sefirot.

While Passover celebrates the miracle of liberation from Egypt, Shavuot emphasizes groundedness in the Land of Israel. Its theme of malkhut prompts us to think about the nature of leadership in our own time – that which we have and that which we lack. It prompts us to question what kingship might look like in a modern era.

In the early days after October 7th, for many of us here in Israel, our feelings of shock, horror and grief were also accompanied by a sense of having been set adrift. With greater urgency than ever, we asked- who, if anyone, was steering our national ship. One didn’t have to be a member of the anti-Bibi camp to feel that our leadership had failed us. Moreover, it wasn’t clear who might be able to lead us out of this morass. A friend commented that “this was the first time in my life that I realized we had a problem that even a group of the most brilliant Jews in the world together in a room couldn’t solve.”

In the months since the massacre, these questions have in many ways been exacerbated, as Israel finds itself mired in an even deeper set of conflicts – balancing international pressure with achieving its military goals in Gaza and of course the question of how best to go about retrieving the hostages, to the extent that our efforts may yield any fruits at all. It’s not that these issues don’t have solutions per se, it’s that the leaders needed to implement these solutions, who can rally their nation, unify factions, leverage diplomatic relationships, inspire trust and move forward with confidence, often seem to be missing from the room.

Counterintuitively, as our politicians continue to bicker and the international picture looks bleaker by the day, we find ourselves surrounded by heroes. It wasn’t only the countless tales of heroism from the day itself: the brothers Elhanan Hy”d and Menahem Kalmanson who drove from the settlement of Otniel to battle terrorists and evacuate dozens of survivors of kibbutz border communities. Aner Shapira Hy”d, who threw back seven explosive grenades while hiding in a shelter near Re’im with two dozen others until he was killed by the eighth. Or Amit Mann Hy”d, the paramedic with an angelic voice who was killed treating patients in the makeshift clinic she refused to abandon in Be’eri on that day.

In December of this year, Hanukkah time, the singer Ruchama ben Yosef released a wonderful song called “VaYehi Or,” Let There be Light,” where she addresses the theological implications of October 7th for a person of faith: “a great miracle did not occur, we did not find the jar of oil.” Instead of discovering a miracle from above, ben Yosef sings, “we discovered ourselves.”

News reports out of Israel are, more often than not, depressing. Yet the closer in you stand the more you can see how in many ways the days since October 7th have demonstrated a national love affair with our soldiers. These young men and women, representatives of every single sector of Israeli society, jumped into action on October 7th and have not since stopped sacrificing to protect our country. Included in this category are their families who also sacrifice and in the most tragic cases mourn, all also in the name of duty to country and nation.

Israeli civil society has also been roused into activity, supporting the many populations left vulnerable by the ongoing threats from Hamas and Hezbollah. When you evaluate it top-down, the picture in Israel does not look great. But from the bottom-up we have a society that continues to be strong, resilient and for the most part united.

This dichotomy is one that we have seen before in Jewish history, and it is nowhere better exemplified than in the book of Ruth. Ruth is a story about two brave women who transcend tragic circumstances in order to make a lasting contribution to the Jewish people. The Book of Ruth is also, as mentioned above, a story of Malkhut. It depicts the transition from the Book of Judges, wherein centralized leadership is lacking – “in those days there was no king in Israel, everyone did as he pleased” – to the Book of Samuel, which depicts the beginning of the Davidic Monarchy.

In his wonderful book Rising Moon Rabbi Moshe Miller explores the nature of malkhut as it manifests itself in the Book of Ruth. True kingship, according to Miller, is not the exercise of power by a single individual. Instead Miller suggests that the best way to understand malkhut is by drawing on the philosophical and scientific category of “emergence,” which describes complex systems, like beehives or ant colonies, that are not reducible to the sum of their parts:

“Individual bees or ants are incapable of functioning alone; they cannot reproduce; they cannot find food. They exist only as units within a larger whole. Put these units together, and suddenly, as if by magic, they begin differentiating, each individual performing a specific task according to the needs of the integrated system, the super-organism. When a hive attacks a person, it comes after him like a single organism; when ants go on a march, their relentless miles-long movement is that of a unified power, an army. Malkhut is the name we use to describe a system in which components work synergistically to produce a whole that is greater than its components.”

Miller points to the statement in the Talmud, Bava Batra 15B, “Whoever says that Malkhat Sheva (lit. Queen of Sheba) refers to a woman is mistaken. Rather it means the Kingdom of Sheba.” The implication here is that malkhut does not refer to the reign of an individual king or queen, rather, malkhut is what enables a nation to act in a united and cohesive fashion.

This particular vision of kingship as a kind of emergent collective phenomenon is not necessarily characteristic of the institution and reign of historical kings generally, or even in Israel in particular. The reign of Israel’s first king Saul, for example, was initiated by the urging of a frustrated nation, tired of Philistine abuse, against the better instincts of its prophet Samuel. Despite Samuel’s warnings about the potential pitfalls of monarchy the people insist “we must have a king over us, that we may be like all the other nations: Let our king rule over us and go out at our head and fight our battles.”

Saul is genuinely a remarkable figure – and he does end up succeeding in many battles. His great failure is when he spares King Agag of Amalek and his flocks, a lethal combination of misplaced pity and eagerness to draw short term approval from his own troops. Saul is like many leaders we know: genuinely impressive and talented, but ultimately representing a paradigm of leadership that does not emerge organically and thus could not withstand the test of shifting generations.

David the Judean represents a different model. He emerges, not from a position of prominence, but seemingly out of nowhere. He attracts the admiration of all who encounter him, but he elicits love rather than intimidation. While the first physical description of Saul is that he “was a head taller than anyone else in the nation,” one of our first visual encounters with David is as a miniature shepherd standing up to a giant. David will also make his own share of mistakes, which are in some ways even more serious than those made by Saul. But his kingship endures because it is not reducible to him as an individual or even the Judeans as a tribe.

As a leader, David embodies the spirit of his nation. In contrast with Saul, he is the embodiment of the bottom-up form of leadership we see incubating in Israel today. And while a feature of true Malkhut is that it seemingly emerges out of the ether, the Bible does provide us with a prequel of sorts through the book of Ruth.

The book of Ruth provides a genealogy for the Davidic line, rooted in the union of Boaz, a wealthy Judean landowner, and Ruth, a Moabite convert. The circumstances in the early verses of the Book of Ruth are rather bleak – they depict famine, intermarriage, and the premature death of Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, and their two sons Machlon and Kilyon.

The Rabbis of the Talmud detect another layer of discord in this time period, reading the book’s opening line of “it happened in the days when the judges judged” as “this was a generation that judged its judges” (Bava Batra 15b). That is, even the nominal forms of leadership at this time were unsteady and up for debate.This evokes the postmodern erosion of institutional authority across the West, or perhaps the recent debates about judicial reform that rocked Israel. The context from which Ruth and Naomi emerge is one of grief and disintegration. Having lost nearly everything, Naomi urges her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orphah to turn back to Moab– “My lot is far more bitter than yours, for the hand of the Lord has struck out against me.”

The Book of Ruth records several moments of chesed, lovingkindness, which ultimately transform this situation of atomization and hopelessness into one of transcendence. The first such act is when Ruth chooses, despite their reversal of circumstances, to stand with Naomi: “for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Ruth’s bravery, which will ultimately produce the royal house of David, begins with an act of loyalty to Naomi. This simple, visceral action, it turns out, will have more of an impact on the course of Jewish history than the battles and treaties of far more senior figures in positions of leadership.

Next, in the barley fields of Bethlehem, it’s Boaz’s turn to shine. He sees Ruth gleaning on behalf of her mother-in-law and is moved by her story, “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 mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before.” Boaz makes sure Ruth is treated with dignity and generosity. He foregoes the conventional status hierarchies and sees glowing virtue in a person that others are bound to ignore.

The fact that this takes place in the grain fields is significant. Whereas as others look up to the skies, or to prominent figures for inspiration, Boaz looks down and it’s there that he finds Ruth, bent to the ground but driven by something with hints of eternity.

The climactic moment of chesed in the book is one in which it’s not quite clear which character is doing the giving and which is receiving. Ruth, following Naomi’s suggestion, lays at Boaz’s feet in the middle of night and in a position of great vulnerability, asks him to fulfill his role as a “redeeming kinsman.” As a relative of Naomi’s, Boaz is asked to marry childless widow Ruth and thus rescue their family name from oblivion. This is complicated by various factors. For one, Ruth is far younger than him, and far lower in stature. She is also a Moabite, a nation whose members Israelites are forbidden to marry by Torah law. Yet Boaz reacts to Ruth’s unusual entreaty with gratitude, “Be blessed of the Lord, daughter!” he exclaims, “your latest deed of loyalty is greater than the first.” Like the starry eyed couple at the end of O’ Henry’s famous story “The Gift of the Magi,” the dichotomy between giver and receiver collapses in this nighttime scene. This moment of generosity and the erasure of ego will eventually result in the overturning of a legal paradigm in Ruth’s case.This moment of generosity and the erasure of ego will ultimately usher in the birth of David, which also points toward the eventual messianic age.

So what do these collected moments of chesed have to do with Jewish leadership and with the difficult times we live in today? In all of these cases it’s the loyalty, heroism and ingenuity of regular people, rooted to their land and to each other, that changes the course of history. Elimelech and Naomi’s original flight from Bethlehem, the tragic deaths of Elimelech and his sons, Naomi and Ruth’s downward spiral into penury, all of these things should have served to dissolve their family bonds and separate the characters in the book from one another. Instead, something marvelous happens. In their pain they grow closer, and the bonds they build together end up forming the matrix from which malkhut will eventually emerge.

In recent months, there’s hardly anyone here in Israel who hasn’t been touched by loss. Attending funerals or visiting shiva houses of bereaved families of IDF soldiers, even those we do not personally know, is a new national pastime. We show up to demonstrate that we share in the suffering of these families, we are grateful for the heroism of their sons, husbands and fathers, and we would like to think that maybe one more visitor or attendee might ease their burden just an infinitesimal bit. In such circumstances it’s often difficult to find the right words to say. One of the handful of lines that repeats itself is “we should be worthy of their sacrifice.”

It’s possible to interpret this phrase along the lines of what we see in the book of Ruth. When confronted with tragedy that hits too close to home, all of us in a society, not only those directly affected, may take one of two paths. We can sink into feelings of despair and hopelessness, which are, admittedly, justifiable. Or we can use this painful opportunity to strengthen our bonds and form a kind of web that connects us with those we have lost, with each other, and with future generations yet to come. This latter movement characterizes the modality of malkhut, whether it may one day manifest itself in a David-like leader, or whether it’s already manifesting all around us. As Naomi blesses Boaz halfway through the book, “Blessed be he of the Lord, who has not failed in His kindness to the living or to the dead.”

The emergence of malkhut will not bring back those we have lost, but it ensures that their contributions are embedded within a larger living organism that allows them, in a sense, to still be with us.

Adapted from a post that originally appeared on Book of Books.