Ilana Goldstein Saks
Ilana Goldstein Saks
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Err on the side of kindness

The Book of Ruth embodies a living Torah, where human practice and divine intent come together, a perfect celebration of the day the Torah was given
(Courtesy)
(Courtesy)

“Presently Boaz arrived from Bethlehem. He greeted the harvesters, ‘The Lord be with you!’” (Ruth 2:4)

The setting is one familiar to me: the idyllic fields of Beit Lehem (Bethlehem). Flowing hillsides of deep-brown and emerald terraces; rich earth awash with golden-beige and olive green. As I write, I look out beyond my backyard at a view virtually untouched since the days of Boaz, and conjure the scene in my mind, wondering where in the expanse before me he once tread. I imagine the harvesters of grain, Boaz’s workers, hearing his greeting and looking up. They straighten their shoulders, raise their heads a bit higher, and respond: “The Lord bless you!” (ibid.)

Meanwhile in the celestial realm, the Ministering Angels are all aflutter. The heavenly court convenes to rule on the case of Boaz Invoking the Name of God. Their conclusion? The Talmud reports, in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, that “there were three matters that the earthly court implemented and the heavenly court agreed with them.” One of them: “Greeting another in the name of God” (Makkot 23b). Boaz is vindicated in the court on high.

The lovely, peaceful, seemingly innocuous exchange between Boaz and his workers was, apparently, a ground-breaking innovation, a grassroots revolution.

A parallel source, the concluding statement of Tractate Berakhot, sheds some light on this matter:

The Sages also instituted that one should greet another in the name of God, as it is stated: “And presently Boaz came from Bethlehem and said to the harvesters, The Lord is with you, and they said to him, May the Lord bless you” (Ruth 2:4)… [as] it says: ‘It is time to work for the Lord; they have made void Your Torah’ (Psalms 119:126).”

Here, Boaz’s actions serve as a precedent for a rabbinic ordinance that proclaims that one should, as he did, greet others using God’s name. This behavior, which borders dangerously close to using God’s name in vain, is justified by the concept “et la’asot la-Hashem heferu toratekha” — a sort of talmudic “desperate times call for desperate measures.” But while the desperate measure — using the name of God in a greeting — is clear, the desperate situation that needs rectifying is subject to debate.

Some suggest that the problem was that people were forgetting the name of God, meaning that God was not a part of their daily discourse and consciousness:

The early rabbis established that one should ask after the welfare of one’s friend using the name of God saying: “Hashem be with you.” And there is no concern for using God’s name in vain, because the intention is for God’s name to be routinely in his mouth (Tiferet Yisrael).

Rashi, understands the issue differently:

One who intends to inquire after the welfare of his friend, this is the will of God, as it says: “Seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:17.) [For this] it is permitted to break the Torah and do something which appears forbidden.

These commentaries understand the issue at hand differently, but each has great insight into the exchange which took place that day in the barley field. On the one hand it was a conversation infused with the divine, on the other it reflects the belief that how one relates to another human being should be deemed as important as how one addresses God.  It is a beautiful vignette, a necessary salve for the many ills present in Israelite society in Boaz’s time. Its appearance at the end of Berakhot (“Blessings”) suggests that the Rabbis saw it as a recipe for blessedness which inspired none other than God Himself to nod in agreement.

This portrayal of Boaz in this one instance is merely a hint to another time he stepped boldly beyond what was societally acceptable in order to accomplish the necessary — to marry the most worthy of women who happened to be a Moabite. It is Boaz’s strength of character and true leadership throughout the story that win God’s retroactive stamp of approval.

But if Boaz’s actions are extraordinary, he is matched and joined by other remarkable people who consistently do more than is expected. Such individuals live according to an expanded spirit of the law, rather than just the strict letter of the law. Significantly, their actions stem not only from a deep understanding of the needs of others, but also follow a template set by God. This combination, which follows the pattern set by Boaz’s conversation with his workers, is what informs their actions.

When Boaz encourages Ruth “to partake of the bread (lehem)” (2:14) he is passing forward the kindness of God who had remembered to restore bread to his people (1:6).

When Ruth describes Boaz’s spreading the edge of his garment (kenafekha) over her as the symbol of his redemption of Naomi’s family (3:9), she evokes the phrase used by Boaz himself when he describes the protection afforded Ruth by God (kenafav) when she threw her lot in with Naomi’s people (2:12).

While Boaz extolls Ruth’s willingness to leave her native land (2:11) in order not to leave Naomi (1:16), Naomi rejoices in God “who did not leave off his kindness” to Naomi and her family (2:20).

When Ruth and Boaz finally establish a home, the people proclaim it as a gift of God (4:12), but it was Naomi who encouraged Ruth to take action so that her house could be built (3:1, also 1:9).

And when, earlier, Naomi bitterly mourns that God had returned her empty to Bethlehem (reikam, 1:21), Boaz acts in God’s stead by insisting that Ruth not return to her mother-in-law empty-handed (reikam, 3:17).  Perhaps Boaz who saw God take away and return the lehem of Beit Lehem intuited that he should help refill Naomi’s life once more.

As one reads through the story, then, the picture before us again splits in two, and we see heaven and earth working in tandem, with the deeds of the people below mirroring those of God above. We know all too well the danger of presuming to unequivocally know God’s thoughts, but this story teaches that when erring on the side of kindness we can dare to be presumptuous.

It is curious that Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah, is not mentioned in the Torah itself in the description of the holiday of Shavuot — even though the timing of that event justifies the association. Perhaps it is because the Torah was never meant to remain in heaven, and we were never meant to encamp forever at Mount Sinai. Instead we carried the Torah with us — packed safely in our manna-laden backpacks — as we completed the 50 stages of our journey home. Once there, we were to plant it firmly in the Land, where it would flourish like the wheat we would plant beside it. And when we ultimately baked our leavened bread, with enough to share with the widow and the stranger and the poor, we would then go and offer our first two loaves back up to heaven (Leviticus 23:17), in thanks and in recognition that it was God who gave to us first.

About the Author
Ilana Goldstein Saks has an MA in Bible from Bar-Ilan University, has taught in a number of midrashot and schools in Israel, and has worked in Jewish Studies curriculum development. She has also baked and taught workshops on bread and Jewish sources at an Israeli artisanal bakery. She lives with her family in Efrat.
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