Ruth is a love story no less compelling or passionate that Shir Hashirim. Their expressions of love are different: Shir Hashirim is a love of hair and eyes, of breasts and thighs. Of throbbing syntax, dreams of intimacy and nightmares of abandonment. Shir Hashirim is love spontaneous, consuming, tumultuous.
Not so the book of Ruth. Love in the book of Ruth is responsibility. Responsibility does not sound like a love word. It sounds like a duty word.
Yet the root of the word responsibility is response, and the type of response we see in the book of Ruth is one that personalizes, not objectifies. It is a response that binds heart to heart, that sees pain and need and expectations, sees it, recognizes it, and the response is formed not out of duty, but of love.
Two examples: Ruth’s interactions with Naomi, and Ruth’s interactions with Boaz. The bridge between them and the moment of passionate intimacy come together in Chapter 3, and the fulfillment in Chapter 4.
I will not read too much into the text, but try to be satisfied by what the text seems to be saying, and what it suggests.
In Ch.1, on the border between Ruth’s Moav and Naomi’s Yehuda, Ruth binds herself totally to Naomi, and to Naomi’s people and her God. “Let only death separate us.” she says. “Where you go, I go, and where you sleep, so will I. Your people is my people, and your God, my God.” Naomi’s response here is notable: she says nothing. She hears the true commitment in Ruth’s voice, but she also knows what Ruth is (a Moaviah) and that according to Biblical law, she will never be able to marry, nor ever truly integrate as a Jew. She will remain the quintessential outsider all her days. She loves Ruth and would spare her this fate; she loves Ruth and would have her near; she loves Ruth and love will ignore unpleasant realities of the future for the love of the present.
So Naomi neither acquiesces nor rejects. She does not know the end of things, and she is willing to wait. Ruth’s deeds will be proof. Ruth and Naomi’s conversation – in words – is curtailed, to be resumed in Ch. 3.
Ch. 2 paints one of the most beautiful, graceful, and delicate interchanges in the Tanach. Boaz, returning from Bet Lechem, notices a strange girl in his field…no, telling the story destroys the love here. Ruth’s love and devotion to Naomi draw forth a responsibility from Boaz, perhaps all the more urgently because he has himself been neglecting his ties to Naomi who is, after all, his kith and kin. The unassuming humility and sweetness and gratitude of Ruth’s response… Here I am telling the story again, corrupting something pure with words. The moment is what is important, the mutual tenderness, Boaz’ realization that yes, she has joined herself to family, nation, and God. Even so early in their relationship, one senses that Boaz knows there can only be one conclusion to Ruth’s story.
Ruth does not realize this yet. She is just being Ruth. It is impossible not to love her. It is impossible not to love Boaz.
“Elimelech (Naomi’s late husband), Salmon (Boaz’s father), Ploni Almoni, and Naomi’s father were all sons of Nachshon ben Aminadav.” One can learn Ch. 3 without this midrash, but why try? Naomi and Boaz were first cousins, just as Ya’akov and Leah and Rachel were first cousins. Elimelech was an older man without children when he married Naomi. She may have had her eye and her hopes upon the younger Boaz. Now, returning from Sde Moav, embittered and poor, bereaved of her two sons, Naomi brings along with her the symbol of her sorrow. Ruth is the quintessential outsider, a member of a people known for their selfish and insensitive ways. Naomi too is an outsider, associated with her husband who abandoned his people in their time of need, selfish and insensitive. The idea of a liaison with Boaz is hopeless now. Boaz does not even initially concern himself about her well-being.
Ruth’s acts of devotion and Hashem’s subtle intervention set up a situation – one of “those things” happened – and Ruth finds herself gathering in Boaz’ field, entangling personalities and fates. Boaz sees in Ruth all the goodness of Naomi, and signals his responsibility through food, assuring that Ruth would be bringing to Naomi an unusual amount from gleaning. Naomi understands the message immediately.
And so we find ourselves in Ch. 3.
K’tiv and Kri are often difficult to interpret. What is really mean or signified by this letter or a variant spelling? In this case perhaps subtlety has been thrown to the winds. Naomi is instructing Ruth to create a moment of intimacy and vulnerability with Boaz, but her instructions to Ruth veer from being said in the second person (bathe and anoint yourself…”) to being expressed in the first person (“and I shall go down [to the threshing floor] and I shall lie [by him].“) It is as if it is she, Naomi, who is dressing, who is going down to the threshing floor. I don’t believe that she actually wished it were her doing it, but rather that she realized that Ruth has indeed transcended her parentage, she is no longer a daughter of Lot but of Avraham and Sarah, and she now binds her continuity to the Moabite girl. “You say, ‘your people shall be my people,’ and now I respond, ‘your seed shall be my seed.’” Her giur is giur. And Naomi sends her to the Boaz, the av bet din of this story.
This transformation makes more sense when we recall the reason that Moabites are excluded from joining the Jewish people. On the face of it, one would think that the origins of Moav, a result of incest between Lot and his oldest daughter, infused the nation of Moav with a genetic impurity that cannot be erased. The Torah, however, does not attribute Moav’s defect to genetics, but to character. Sons of Moav and Ammon are not allowed into the Jewish people because “they did not greet you with bread and water when you were wandering in the desert.” The exact context is unimportant here. Rather, the Torah communicates the idea that a nation characterized by selfishness and lack of charity and fraternity excludes itself from the sons of Avraham.
This point is made explicit by the deeds of Elimelech that frame the first chapter of the book. There is a famine in the land of Yehuda. Elimelech, as a man of substance, would be expected to provide for his brethren and see to the needs of the vulnerable in society. Instead, he leaves. And to where? To a land and nation that reflects his own values, to the land of Moav. In this striking parallelism, we see that Elimelech became a Moabite through his actions, and Ruth merited acceptance as a bat Avraham through hers.
The scene at the darkened threshing floor is, again, one of shattering trust and vulnerability. We’ve not talked about the role of clothing in the book but “spread your wing over your handmaid” recalls Boaz’ understanding of Ruth’s relentless intention, of Naomi’s hopelessness and hope, of Ruth’s devotion to family and nation and Torah and to its embodiment in the wisdom and uprightness of Boaz. Most would have been struck dumb, but Boaz’ response validates Ruth’s conduct, validates it and immortalizes it. He again sends a message to Naomi by way of food – almost as a bride-price – protects Ruth’s reputation and perhaps his own, and because the wings of the schechina are expressed not only in tenderness and feeling of rightness but in law, Boaz sets out to establish the intimacy of experience upon the foundations of society.
The final chapter is of redemption – geulah. Geulah is mentioned no less than 15 times in this chapter of just 21 verses. The “bookends” of the first and last chapter are remarkable: the first chapter is a story of galut, exile, both physical and spiritual, characterized by the death of Elimelech and his two sons, a familial dead-end. The last chapter brings us to geulah: ploni almoni, Boaz, and it’s hard to escape the idea that even Ruth is referred to as a goel, beloved and better than seven sons.
And just as one cannot ignore that Boaz was careful and thorough in his application of Jewish law, we also see changes in Jewish law reflected in this narrative. In Sefer D’varim, halitza – the removal of the sandal – is described as a shameful thing, disparaging one who would not take his dead brother’s wife into his home to build up his name in Israel. In Ruth, removing the sandal seems to be a form of kinyan, a neutral and ritualistic formal transferral of ownership.
The ritual of removing the sandal is presented in some detail in Ruth, as it is in Sefer D’varim. One wonders about the emphasis on this act, as the story would be complete without it. Perhaps the idea here is that Halacha changes. Just as the ritual of removing the sandal has taken on completely new significance, so are we seeing a change in the ban of Moabites from ever joining the Jewish people (at least, Moabite women). Ruth’s deeds over-ride the letter of the Halacha, changing it forever. We see a similar idea in a midrash about Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi and Antoninus, where R. Yehuda Hanasi chides Antoninus for humbling himself before the rabbi. “Maybe in the next world, I be nothing more than your footstool,” suggests Rabbi.
“I have place in the world to come?” asked Antoninus, “I thought you have a text that excluded the sons of Edom from the next world.”
“That applies only to those who act like Edom,” explained the Rabbi.
Chapter 4 also explicitly connects the story of Ruth to earlier figures in the Jewish narrative. Boaz is blessed that his house should become like that of Bet Peretz, who Tamar bore to Yehuda. The parallels, again, are striking: both Yehuda and Elimelech “went down,” separating themselves from their family and communal responsibility. Yehuda lost his wife and two sons. Naomi lost her husband and two sons. Tamar was as committed as Ruth to the continuity of her dead husband’s lineage. Frustrated by Yehuda’s procrastinations, she resorted to subterfuge, but eventually was redeemed through an honesty that left her completely vulnerable. Ruth relies not on subterfuge but openness, never fearing her vulnerability, recognizing kindness as it comes her way, trusting in Naomi and Boaz – and Hashem – to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles. And, of course, Boaz is the direct descendent of Peretz.
Not as clear but still present are the thematic connections to the story of Yaakov. We see Boaz communicating with food, similar to Rivka who made food for Yitzhak such as he liked, but certainly different than what Esav would have made. We see the duality of Ruth and Naomi, with the text clearly hinting that it was Naomi, in a sense, that was going down to the threshing floor. And Ruth/Naomi are later blessed to be fruitful like Rahel and Leah.
It is easy to file all of these parallels under ma’asei avot siman lebanim. But more than that: by referencing these most ancient stories, the book of Ruth connects the kingship of David to the primal forces and purposes in the Jewish narrative. To draw out a point that is not made explicit in the text: the Jewish lineage is traced down from two sons of Terach, Avraham and Nahor. There seems to be something of an imbalance, a lack caused by the absence of Haran’s line which resulted from the exclusion of Moav and Ben Ami from the Jewish narrative. Ruth integrates the line of Lot back into the Jewish people, and it is this tikkun that will bring the mashiach. Although the roles of Boaz and Naomi are critical, it is the internal beauty, purity, and d’vekut of Ruth that generates the heat of this story. It is her love, her response, and her sense of responsibility that will bring us to David and the Temple.
Dialogues form the essence of the book of Ruth. Interactions and connections between Ruth and Naomi, Ruth and Boaz, Naomi and Boaz as conducted through the agency of Ruth define the dynamics of this book. Place is another way of framing this narrative, as it moves from the field (the fields of Moav to the fields of Boaz) to the threshing-floor, to the gate, and to the house: the house of Boaz, of Israel, of Peretz, all leading to the house of David. הבחירה בית אלא בית ואין
So this story of love and response makes its connections again to the story of breathless love in the Song of Songs. Just as that book connects the young love of passion to the relationship of Hashem and Israel, and even the individual in his quest for closeness to the Source of all passion (“How I recall the love of your youth and the passion of our betrothal, how you followed me out into the desert, to a barren and desolate land,” Jeremiah 2), so does the book of Ruth bring us from the wilderness of the field, in incremental stages. First to the threshing-floor (suggesting goren aravna – the threshing floor of Aravna the Jebusite purchase by David: the “stuff” that the House will be made of), a place not in a complete state of nature, of human activity, but still not inside the walls. From there to the gate, the opening between the settled and the unsettled, where we think of Yaakov’s Gate of Heaven in its form closest to nature, and the place where the king judges his people in its most human. And, finally, to the house, the symbol of ultimate humanity and intimacy, of human continuity and love, eternal holiness and love, symbolized by the feminine and exemplified by the love and hesed of Ruth.