On Shavuot, apart from cheesecake, we encounter two of our most wonderful stories, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, of course, and then, the Book of Ruth. Ruth is one of my own favorites; I spent several years exploring the tale and its values for our own lives. My book Arise! Arise! Deborah, Ruth and Hannah grew from that fascination. Apart from the poignancy of their story, the deep kindness, the hesed, lived by Ruth, Naomi, Boaz, and unnamed others seizes me every time I read. Equally remarkable is the lasting value of their story for all of us; since Megillat Ruth is also the background story for King David’s birth, we understand that its characters’ overwhelming hesed must be the root of all Jewish life. Let’s look below at how Ruth, Naomi and Boaz, and other anonymous characters, model this crucial character value in a few key moments of the story. You will find the entire story with paintings and commentary in the book.
First, let’s consider the truly cosmic importance of hesed. In Kabbalah—which, standing on one leg, can be characterized as the story and mechanics of the flow of God’s energy into and throughout the world—hesed is one of the key sephirot, the emanations, or qualities of God’s energy, as it suffuses and shapes our world. Thus, anyone who spreads hesed, this deep loving-kindness, is directly doing God’s work, directly improving the world, doing tikkun olam.
Now move to the story. Interestingly, Samuel—for he is the prophet who is traditionally believed to have recorded it, although many scholars suggest a woman might have written this tale—begins with the consequences of an absence of hesed. Megillat Ruth begins with death.
Naomi’s husband and two sons, the husbands of her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth, have all died over the course of the ten years prior to the story. Why did they die? The text is terse, tells us nothing more than that they died and that the women were left on their own. However we soon learn that her husband, Elimelekh and sons, Machlon and Chilion, had owned land in Judea, near Bethlehem, and during a drought (and famine) abandoned their lands to move to the traditional enemy-nation of Moab (roughly modern Jordan). The classical rabbinic commentators on Megillat Ruth thus understand that the men’s death was due to their arrogant neglect of their less-wealthy fellow-Judeans—they simply left for greener pastures rather than use their resources to care for their community. Their very names carry their guilt: The rabbis interpret “Elimelech” as “to me shall the kingdom come,” “Machlon” means “blotted out,” and “Chilion,” “perished.” In contrast, Naomi’s name means “pleasant and sweet.” The midrash traces a long path of misfortunes punishing the men for their negligence, drawing upon Leviticus 13-14. But “pleasant and sweet” Naomi and Ruth experience a different fate.
As we know, Naomi and Ruth set out for Bethlehem, near the family’s ancestral lands. Orpah follows her penniless mother-in-law’s urging and returns to her Moabite family.
Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you, for wherever you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. This and more may the Lord do to me, and more also, if anything but death parts me from you.
The imagery I included in the artwork lays out a visual allegory about the implications of the hesed that Ruth offers Naomi for the nation she is unwittingly strengthening through her personal actions. The palm tree overhead draws upon Psalm 92, the special Psalm for Shabbat, that describes how “the righteous will grow straight as a palm tree.” The stork flying over the women kneeling in the parched landscape is the literal meaning of the word hesed; Jewish legend describes the stork as the kindest of avian parents. The caper plant growing from the base of the palm suggests Israel’s ability to persist through adversity with only God’s unseen hand, God’s own hesed, beneath us.
The two women trudge toward now-thriving Bethlehem, and when they arrive undoubtedly hot, grimy and hungry—hardly looking like the wealthy woman Naomi had been when last in Bethlehem—the townspeople can scarcely believe their eyes. “Can this be Naomi?” they exclaim. Rabbinics scarcely mention this, but the townspeople’s response seems remarkable to me. Notice that although they would surely have immediately remembered how Naomi had followed her husband to Moab in the community’s time of need, they do not spurn her; reading between the lines we understand that the town accepted her and found her shelter. Also notice that Naomi has brought with her not only a foreigner, but a woman from an express enemy nation. I think you have to understand the townspeople’s surprise and implicit acceptance as a profound example of hesed. The capers springing from the city wall (as they do today from the Western Wall) again speak of perseverance with only divine support, and the golden eagle feathers atop the scene allude to the midrash comparing the eagle, the most protective parent among birds, to God’s parental care of Israel.
Subsequently, the young Bethlehemite women teach Ruth how to survive by gleaning grain on surrounding farms, a further act of hesed. Soon she encounters Boaz, and we know the story of their startling introduction and Naomi’s intervention to assure that Ruth be settled happily.
Boaz exhibits profound hesed in redeeming Naomi’s lands, yet exceeds any legal requirement when he insists that redeeming the land entails marrying Ruth. In these paintings modeled upon cylinder seals of the day, with which the necessary documents would have been sealed, you see him confronting the anonymous primary heir with this demand, and then presenting his case to the informal court gathered at the city gates.
All ends happily for the new family—Boaz, Ruth, and their children and Naomi, the blessed mother-in-law and grandmother, again beloved in her Bethlehem community. The Almighty’s providential eagles’ wings stretch over the thriving land, and all Israel looks ahead to its great king.
We understand the centrality of Megillat Ruth in Jewish tradition, we see the importance of visible and unacknowledged hesed in the characters’ lives. Many of us have our own tales of hesed done for us at difficult moments in our lives; I, for instance, could talk for hours about the hesed showered upon me by my community (and particular individuals) in the months and years following my husband, David’s, death a little over ten years ago, and who have shared my joy since those dark days. If you would like to share a tale of hesed from your own life story, please do post it (maintaining any appropriate discretion about names and places) in the responses here. And Hag Sameach! And, you’ll find Arise! Arise! Deborah, Ruth and Hannah on Amazon.