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Shavuot 5763-2003

“The Remarkable Legacy of Ruth, the Righteous Convert”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Because, this year, the festival of Shavuot falls on Friday and Shabbat, the regular parasha, Naso, is postponed for a week, and the special festival Torah readings are read in its place.

On Shabbat, as part of the morning holiday prayer service, immediately prior to the Torah reading, the Book of Ruth is read. The Book of Ruth, one of the five Megillot, is only four chapters long, but it is one of the richest and most dramatic books of the bible. The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot because the story of Ruth takes place at the beginning of the barley harvest, which coincides with the Shavuot season, and also because the book records the birth of King David, whose birthday and passing are traditionally marked on Shavuot.

The Book of Ruth could easily pass for a stirring love story. However, the Book of Ruth is far more. It is in fact, a volume that introduces some of the most exalted philosophical and theological concepts known to humankind.

We are told (Ruth 1:1) that the story of Ruth takes place “Be’may sh’fot ha’shoftim,” literally during the time that the judges judged–a phrase that can also be interpreted to mean in the days when the judges were judged. This reading implies that in those days the judges really had no authority, and rather than show initiative and bold leadership, the judges followed the will of the people. The 350 year period known as the Period of the Judges was a time when scripture tells us (Judges 17:6): “Ish ha’yashar b’ay’nav ya’a’seh,” every person behaved in a way that was fitting in his or her own eyes. In essence, it was a period of anarchy. Simply stated, the people “did their own thing!”

The Book of Ruth opens with a great famine that strikes the land of Judea. A most prominent man whose name was Elimelech, of the tribe of Judah (the most noble tribe of Israel, and descended from a most noble family), decided to check out of Bet Lechem, Bethlehem, literally, the home of bread, and live in the fields of Moab. The commentaries explain that even though Elimelech was a man of immense wealth, with storehouses of food so staggering that he could have sustained the poor of Israel for 10 years, he chose instead to live in a hovel in Moab.

Why did Elimelech leave Judea, abandoning the “duplex penthouse” in which he resided? To avoid having to deal with all the schnorers and collectors who were seeking support. How revealing! Elimelech moves to Moab, to live with one of the two nations that the Torah in Deuteronomy 23:5 tells us can never marry into the Jewish nation, “Al d’var asher lo kidmu etchem ba’lechem u’va’mayim, baderech bi’tzayt’chem mee’mitzrayim,” because the Ammonites and the Moabites refused to greet the Jewish people with bread and water when the Israelites were leaving the land of Egypt. If any people should be beholden to Israel, it should be the Ammonites and the Moabites. After all, their father Lot was rescued from the destruction of Sodom only in the merit of Abraham. The Ammonites and Moabites should have been the first to come to the aid of the Israelites–but instead they chased the Israelites away. And of all the places on earth, Elimelech specifically chooses to dwell with these ungrateful people.

Elimelech soon dies in Moab, and his widow Naomi is left with her two sons, who marry Moabite women, named Orpah and Ruth.

According to tradition, Orpah and Ruth were both princesses, the daughters of Eglon, King of Moab. Scripture implies that after their father Eglon was killed by Ehud, a Jewish judge, the daughters sort of “freaked out,” choosing to live as Bohemians in the fields of Moab. Tragedy again strikes Elimelech’s family and the two sons die. The bereft Naomi attempts to persuade her daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite mother’s home, so that Naomi could return to Israel to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Orpah eventually returns to the Moabite nation, and according to Jewish tradition, becomes the great-grandmother of Goliath. Ruth, however, remains with Naomi and clings to the Jewish people. In one of the most dramatic and moving scenes in all of human history, recorded in Ruth 1:16 & 17, Ruth boldly declares: “Wherever you [Naomi] go, I will go. Where you sleep, I will sleep. Your people are my people, your G-d is my G-d, where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.” Ruth, then embraces the Jewish people for eternity.

The Israelites in Judea are shocked when they behold the formerly beautiful, wealthy and aristocratic Naomi return to the land of Judea in rags, her life completely undone, and with a Moabite daughter-in-law in tow. Naomi painfully cries out to the people(Ruth 1:20): “Don’t call me Naomi,” which means pleasant, “call me Mara,” which means bitter.

After many dramatic developments, Ruth the Moabite convert marries the great Jewish leader, Boaz, who is the redeemer of Elemelech’s family, and Ruth gives birth to a child, Oved, who is the grandfather of the great King David.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this story is not that a Moabite princess abandons a life of privilege and luxury to become a Jewish convert and labor in the brutally hot fields collecting gleanings in order to sustain herself and her mother-in-law, Naomi. Even more remarkable is the fact that the Book of Ruth and the Rabbinic tradition teaches us that Ruth, the Moabite, restored the virtue of Chessed, loving-kindness, to the people of Israel. As a descendent of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, the kernel of Chessed was somehow preserved in Ruth’s soul, so that it could be returned to the Jewish people.

The Book of Ruth clearly demonstrates that Jewish tradition is not ashamed to publicize the “dark side” of Jewish life, and to forcefully proclaim that sometimes solutions to Jewish problems may be found outside the Jewish community, among sincere and inspired non-Jews. It is this intellectual honesty, unprecedented openness to outside ideas, that sets Judaism apart from other faith systems. Once again, Judaism proves its revolutionary open-mindedness, and we are most fortunate to be part of it.

On this Shavuot, Thursday night, Friday, and Shabbat, let us embrace our Torah. Let us embrace this sacred tradition, as the Psalmist says (34:9): “Ta’amu ur’oo kee tov Hashem,” Come, taste the Torah, and see how good G-d really is.

May you be blessed.