“Perhaps it’s philosophy that best explains why savoring responsibility leads to fulfillment. The model of happiness perpetuated by the cultural juggernauts of Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and Disneyesque fairy tales of everyday effervescence, broad-smiled contentedness, and perfect relationships is a historically anomalous, and for most, unachievable state. In contrast, we shall return to eudaimonia, the classical Greek concept of happiness that essentially means the “flourishing” or “rich” life. With their devotion to training, meticulousness, and desire for quiet power and accountability, Invisibles understand the value of a life not necessarily of the moment-to-moment happiness that many mistakenly strive for, but of an overall richness of experience, a life grounded in eudaimonic values.”
― David Zweig, Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion
We love stories about underdogs with glorious endings. Stories about David’s and Goliaths, Pharaohs and Moses’s, Maccabees and Greeks, and so many others. The story of Ruth is also very much the story of an underdog who goes on to achieve glory and eminence, becoming the great-grandmother of King David himself. Yet, unlike other underdog stories we see, the story of Ruth teaches us what to do when that glory is not achieved, or at least not immediately.
In the first chapter of Ruth, we see what the ultimate humiliation can look like. Naomi and Elimelech leave their hometown of Beit Lechem (aka Bethlehem) as wealthy and prominent community members. Abandoning their community during a time of famine, they break all norms and leave for Moav—Israel’s sworn enemy. Not only do they abandon their community in time of need, but their sons also commit the unthinkable, marrying Moabite women—Ruth and Orpah. After Elimelech and his sons die, widowed and impoverished, Naomi decides to go back to Beit Lechem. Her daughters-in-law hurt at the thought of their elderly mother-in-law traveling alone and destitute back to her hometown and decided to join her. Knowing of the hardship and poverty awaiting her, as well as the alienation and distrust reserved for strangers there, Naomi urges Ruth and Orpah to return to their families and communities. Orpah turns back and goes home, and Ruth sticks with Naomi.
Naomi was not exaggerating in any way.
Awaiting them in Beit Lechem was no rosy life.
“And it came to pass when they arrived in Bethlehem that the entire city was astir on their account, and they said, “Is this Naomi?”
And she said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Marah, for the Almighty, has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why [then] should you call me Naomi, seeing that the Lord has testified against me, and the Almighty has dealt harshly with me?” (Ruth, chapter 1)
More difficult than the pain, poverty, and loss were the profound humiliation. Naomi, one of the town’s most prominent and wealthy members, was now an impoverished and childless widow—back in the same time. As bad as Naomi’s situation was, Ruth was just there as her sidekick, someone accompanying her, helping her through these challenging times. In many ways, Ruth’s situation was far worse—she was a stranger. Not only was she the daughter-in-law of the town’s most humiliated member, but she was also a stranger—a member of an enemy nation.
Despite having a loving family and community not far away from there, across the Jordan river, in Moav, Ruth decides to remain with her mother-in-law and support her in the difficult conditions of poverty, isolation, and humiliation. It is hard not to adore Ruth for such devotion and kindness.
Sometimes it is easy to be a hero until the inglorious hard work comes in.
The morning comes, and Ruth and Naomi face the harsh reality of food insecurity and even starvation. It is the season of harvesting barley, during which the Torah commands field owners to leave parts of the field for the poor, so Ruth decides to be proactive.
“And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, “I will go now to the field, and I will glean among the ears of grain, after someone whom I will please.” And she said, “Go, my daughter.”
The tragedy of this statement is that it is not a romantic one. Rashi and other commentaries point out that when Ruth says this, she means she is looking for a place where she will not be harassed or reprimanded by the field owner. Such mistreatment was a real possibility due to her lower socioeconomic status or where she originated from—Moab.
“And she went, and she came, and she gleaned in the field after the reapers, and her chance was [to come to] the field that [belonged] to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech….Then Boaz said to his servant, who stood over the reapers, “To whom does this maiden belong?” And the servant in charge of the reapers answered and said, “She is a Moabite maiden who returned with Naomi from the fields of Moab.”
We do not know the size of Beit Lechem’s population those days, but there was no secret there; everybody knew Ruth was the daughter-in-law of the most unfortunate member of the town and a member of the adversarial Moabite nation. Yet, with all the negativity in that story, Boaz sees the good. He calls Ruth over and tells Ruth:
“It has been told to me all that you did for your mother-in-law after your husband’s death, and you left your father and your mother and your native land, and you went to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward your deeds, and may your reward be full from the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take shelter.”
Instead of seeing her as an impoverished foreigner, Boaz sees her as someone who left everything behind to help her mother-in-law and join the Jewish people. Where others saw vice, Boaz saw virtue. A truly powerful lesson: what others saw as something to hold against Ruth, Boaz saw as a beautiful quality.
Boaz’s perception did not change.
After hearing Ruth’s suggestion that they get married in accordance with the Jewish tradition of the Mitzvah of Yibum, wherein relatives of someone who died childless marry his widow, Boaz sticks to the law. The law is that the closest relative is the one who has that mitzvah; Boaz was not the closest relative.
“And he [Boaz]said to the near kinsman, “Naomi, who has returned from the field of Moab, is selling the portion of the field that belonged to our brother, to Elimelech. And Boaz said, “On the day that you buy the field from the hand of Naomi and from Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the deceased, you have bought [it], to preserve the name of the deceased on his heritage….And the near kinsman said, “I cannot redeem [it] for myself, lest I mar my heritage. You redeem my redemption for yourself for I cannot redeem [it].” (chapter 4)
The book of Ruth does not mention who this closer relative “Ploni” is; it just tells us he would not marry Ruth and considered doing so as a “destruction of his share.” After all, to him, a Moabite remains a Moabite. He was likely not the only one who felt that way. And so Ruth went on to marry Boaz. They named their child Oved, whose son was Yishai, whose son was King David.
Once again, another story about an underdog and unlikely hero who rises to the top, something we can all relate to. Yet, there is something uniquely powerful about the story of Ruth, not found elsewhere, which makes her story so much more relatable. Far more often than not, underdogs and ultraistic heroes do not get any recognition. Had Ruth not met Boaz, or had she not become the matriarch of King David, her journey would still be a worthy one. Like so many others who pursue kindness for the sake of kindness with no reward to be seen at the end of the tunnel, Ruth was ready to make the sacrifices she made regardless of where it would lead her.
Like the Jewish people standing at the foot of Sinai, proclaiming “Na’aseh Ve’Nishmah,” we will do what God says and then hear the details, Ruth was ready to join her mother-in-law at all costs. This virtuous decision would be full of merit regardless of the outcome. The uniqueness of the story of Ruth is that unlike many other stories of a surprise happy end, hers is filled with virtue irrespective of the outcome. The story of Ruth is one filled with a powerful message, regardless of the end. Indeed the Midrash (Ruth Rabbah, 2:13) teaches:
“Rabbi Ze’ira stresses this characteristic of the narrative. “This scroll [of Ruth] tells nothing either of cleanliness or of uncleanliness, neither of prohibition or permission. For what purpose then was it written? To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness” (Midrash Ruth Rabbah 2.13).
While Ruth’s reward was indeed great, it did not come until after three generations. It was not immediate, nor did everyone involved get to see its results. Ruth’s kindness is rewarded with being the ultimate matriarch of King David, yet her entire journey is filled with lessons about kindness. What powerful a lesson, Elimelech and his sons who epitomize selfishness and abandoning those in need die in enemy territory—Moab—and remain there. Ruth leaves her own family and community to selflessly care for her lonely mother-in-law in the most challenging conditions and becomes the matriarch of the Davidic dynasty.
The uniqueness of the book of Ruth is that, unlike other stories of underdogs who emerge victorious, the story of Ruth is virtuous and worthy even had she not ended up becoming the matriarch of the Davidic dynasty. The Midrash teaches us that the entire purpose of this book is to inspire us with the reward to those who are kind to others, yet even before her reward has arrived, Ruth’s journey is a worthy one filled with lessons for generations. In life, we will most likely have opportunities to make real sacrifices, prioritizing kindness and decency over immediate reward. The path of kindness and compassion is filled with pain and often isolation and seldom do we see an immediate reward. Our reward may come immediately, after three generations as in the case of Ruth, or perhaps it may not come in this world. The lesson of the book of Ruth is to make that choice regardless of whether we see that reward coming or not.