Shmuel is awakened by a fugitive seeking sanctuary. Shmuel bears much responsibility for David’s predicament, but it’s not clear what he can do. The ultimate insider, raised in the Mishkan, then respected leader, then kingmaker, can no longer even provide David refuge beyond the night.
All he can give David is a story. It must counter Shaul’s deligitimization campaign that claims David is Halachikally unacceptable, generally impure, and unworthy of leadership.
Shmuel has already written great subversive stories. David and Goliath remains the gold standard in giant-slaying. He wrote of the unlikeliest outcasts stepping up to lead. Men from small and “unworthy” tribes. The exiled half-brother from the other woman. A woman. Shmuel has advanced the art of storytelling that presents the clash of ideas through dramatic interpersonal conflict with a backdrop of great battles and political intrigue.
But that won’t do here.
As Dan Polisar taught me, Shmuel’s life at this point must have seemed like a series of failed revolutions. Eli fell, Shmuel’s sons were rejected, Shaul failed, and now David is running for his life. Shmuel is in his own unique personal hell. He survives each revolution only to have to tear down the old regime and start again.
A revolution with lasting relevance, Shmuel realizes, must not be a conventional revolution. It must not tear down the past but rather build upon it. It must respect the motives and accomplishments of the previous regime. It must be framed not as a revolution, but as a continuation and fulfillment.
David will become the rarest of revolutionaries. Instead of killing or demonizing the king, he praises king and kingdom, while establishing himself as a worthy successor.
In Ruth, Shmuel writes the rarest of dramatic masterpieces. There are no villains, no interpersonal conflicts, no battles, and no political intrigue.
Shmuel sets up the conflict. The poor Moabite widow represents society’s limits and failures. The wealthy and respected leader from the royal line represents the establishment. But instead of following through with the conflict Shmuel puts them on the same side, acting with mutual respect and consideration. Sounds boring, but somehow it works.
The Book of Ruth contains fear, tragedy, death, bitterness and loneliness. But not anger or hatred.
It’s not a war between the letter and spirit of the law, but a call to respect both.
It’s not even a war on famine and poverty, but rather a story about growing out of it, and helping others grow out of it.
Shmuel could not have written this book in earlier in his life. His first political episode was as a child awakened by God to prophecy the destruction of the man who raised him. Everything Eli built, valued, and loved was to be destroyed, because Eli failed to stop his sons’ sexual abuse and corruption.
But three revolutions later, Shmuel is a different person in a unique position. He has seen the rejection of his sons’ leadership. He watched Shaul fail to build off Shmuel’s work. Shmuel’s cold, confrontational, absolutist relationship with Shaul has led only to greater tragedy. And it was followed by Shaul’s deadly antagonism to David.
Still, much progress was made, despite each leader’s failure to appreciate its predecessors’ work. The dysfunctional society from the Concubine of Givah tragedy is now only a generation away from Solomon’s Temple and a nation at peace.
Shmuel lived a life of great accomplishments but his final act was his greatest. The writing of the Book of Ruth.
The book teaches that when the letter and the spirit of the law collide, we find a way to respect both, but with a bias towards inclusion and loving kindness.
When an individual’s needs and societal norms collide, we find a way to support both. With a bias towards inclusion and loving kindness.
Lasting progress is accomplished not by rejecting our predecessors and focusing on their shortcomings, but by respecting and building off their work.
The Book of Ruth inspired David, won him popular support, and framed his kingdom. But that was just the start. It’s also the book we read on Shavuot right before we read of God’s powerful revelation on Sinai. The Book of Ruth puts Torah and revelation in context. The revelation and the Torah are relevant and fulfilled when they lead us to the kindness of the Book of Ruth. The letter of the law and its literally earth-shaking revelation are only part of the Torah.
Ruth is the book of the spirit of the law. It is the book of love. The book of kindness. The book of eternity.