Shavuot, Vayeira & Ruth: Whatever You Say

May 15, 2021 at 10:16 pm | Posted in Ruth, Shavuot, Vayeira | 1 Comment

Barley sheaf

At first Shavuot (שָׁבֻעֹת = weeks) marked the end of the seven-week barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest.1 Then it became one of the three annual pilgrimage-festivals in Jerusalem, the day to bring gifts of first fruits to the temple, and it came on fiftieth day after Passover/Pesach.2 After the fall of the second temple, the rabbis decided that day was the anniversary of God’s revelation and transmission of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

This year Shavuot begins at sunset on Sunday, May 16. Some Jews will stay up all night studying Torah—including the book of Ruth,3 which touches on both the barley harvest and the acceptance of the Torah.  The celebration at the end of the barley harvest is the night when Ruth risks everything.4 She also embraces the religion transmitted at Mount Sinai; she leaves her own land, Moab, to follow her mother-in-law Naomi, saying:

from The Story of Ruth, Thomas Matthews Rooke, 1876

“Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay; your people will be my people; and your god will be my god.” (Ruth 1:16)

Although Naomi discourages her, and the Israelites do not welcome her at first, Ruth’s embrace of her new life is as wholehearted as her attachment to Naomi.

During the barley harvest, she feeds herself and her mother-in-law by gleaning in the field of kind landowner named Boaz.  Naomi identifies Boaz as a potential “redeemer”, a male relative who can fulfill two duties for a widow: buying back her deceased husband’s land, and giving her a son in her deceased husband’s name, thereby giving her a place in his family.5

But although Boaz is generous toward Ruth in the barley field, it does not occur to him that he could do more for her and his kinswoman Naomi. He may be holding back because he expects Ruth to marry one of the younger men in the town; later in the story, he praises her for not going after them.6

Ruth at Boaz’s Feet (a polite version), William deBrailes, ca. 1250

So when the barley harvest ends, Naomi comes up with an audacious scheme. She tells Ruth to hide near the threshing floor and wait until Boaz has feasted, drunk, and dozed off.

“Then go over and uncover his ‘feet’ and lie down. And he himself will tell you what to do.” And [Ruth] said to her: “Kol that you say to me I will do.” (Ruth 3:4-5)

kol (כֹּל) = all, everything, whatever, anything.

Ruth is risking her whole future on Naomi’s desperate plan. Boaz could treat her as a prostitute rather than an honorable woman. Or he might cry out in surprise when he wakes up and finds her, and then the other men sleeping on the threshing floor would awaken and discover her in a compromising position.

But Ruth has attached herself to Naomi so completely that she does exactly what her mother-in-law says—and more. When Boaz wakes at midnight, startled, he asks (presumably in a whisper) “Who are you?”

And she said: “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wing over your servant, because you are a redeemer.” (Ruth 3:10)

Now she is telling Boaz what to do. He is rich and powerful in his community; she is an impoverished foreigner, dependent on his good will. But she does everything she can to carry out Naomi’s plan successfully.

Ruth courageously follows all of Naomi’s instructions and more because she has committed herself completely to her mother-in-law.

*

Back in the book of Genesis, Abraham is not nearly as committed to his wife, Sarah.  When she tells him to have a child with her slave-woman, Hagar, he goes along with her request, but disregards the reason she gives.

And Sarah said to Abraham: “Hey, please, God has kept me from bearing a child. Please come into my slave-woman; perhaps I will be built up through her.” And Abraham heeded Sarah’s voice. (Genesis 16:2)

Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham, by Matthias Stomer, 17th century

Sarah politely informs him that she wants a child, even if she must adopt the child of her husband and her slave, Hagar. Abraham heeds her request long enough to get Hagar pregnant, but by the time Sarah complains that Hagar is belittling her, he has lost interest. Instead of intervening to put Sarah’s adoption plan back on track, he merely says:

“Hey, your slave-woman is in your hand. Do to her what is good in your eyes.” (Genesis 16:6)

Sarah abuses Hagar, and Hagar runs away and has a conversation with God. Although she returns to Abraham’s camp, her newborn baby is not placed in Sarah’s lap to signify adoption.7 The boy is named Ishmael—not by Sarah, but by God and then Abraham.

Abraham loves his son.8 But when Ishmael is an adolescent Sarah gives birth to her own son, Isaac. She tells her husband to cast out Ishmael, along with Hagar.

The thing was very bad in Abraham’s eyes, on account of his son. And God said to Abraham: “Don’t let it be bad in your eyes concerning the young man or concerning your slave-woman.  Kol that Sarah says to you, heed her voice, because through Yitzchak descendants will be called by your [name]. And also the son of the slave-woman I will make a nation [out of him], since he is your seed.” (Genesis 21:11-13)

Only when God tells him to do whatever Sarah says does Abraham send away Ishmael and his mother.

And Abraham got up early in the morning, and he took bread and a skin of water and he gave them to Hagar, placed them on her shoulder and the boy[’s], and he sent her away … (Genesis 21:14)

Abraham is a rich man; he could easily afford to give Hagar and Ishmael a donkey or two loaded with provisions and trade goods. And for all he knows, Sarah would not object; she says she does not want Ishmael to inherit Abraham’s estate, but she does not say anything about parting gifts.

Yet Abraham sends off his older son and his concubine with only bread and a single skin of water. They get lost in the desert, the water runs out, and Ishmael is about to die of dehydration when God sends an angel to intervene.9

Abraham can safely assume Ishmael will live long enough to have at least one son, since God promises to “make a nation” out of him. But even if he is not risking Ishmael’s life, Abraham is still responsible for making Ishmael and his mother suffer from thirst and agony in the desert. His neglect is unnecessary and unethical.

Why is he so mean? Abraham is not wholehearted about either Ishmael or Sarah. He obeys God by doing what Sarah says, but he does it grudgingly and badly. Perhaps he closes his heart in order to obey Sarah, and then his heart remains closed. He no longer wants to love Ishmael.

*

Ruth, on the other hand, is so wholehearted in her attachment to Naomi that her heart is open to Boaz as well.

Naomi introduced her threshing floor scheme by saying:

“My daughter, should I not seek for you a tranquil place where it will be good for you?” (Ruth 3:1)

She wants Ruth to have a better life. But Ruth knows that Boaz is kind-hearted enough so that if he redeems her and gives her a tranquil place in his home, he will not leave Naomi out in the cold. For Naomi’s sake, Ruth makes what amounts to an offer of marriage to Boaz.

When she reminds him that he is a potential redeemer, Boaz says:

“And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. Kol that you say to me I will do for you.” (Ruth 3:11)

Like Ruth, Boaz does exactly what he is told, and more. He helps her sneak away from the threshing floor before dawn, and sends her back to Naomi with a gift of threshed barley. In the morning, in order to make sure nobody can question his acting as the redeemer, Boaz sits with the other elders in the city gate and hails the only relative of Naomi’s who is closer to her on the family tree. The other elders serve as witnesses that the other man refuses to be the redeemer, and that Boaz is now acquiring the land and Ruth.

Boaz opens his heart to Ruth and Naomi, and takes extra steps to make sure his marriage to Ruth is legal and recognized by the whole community, even though she is a Moabite. The book ends with Boaz and Ruth’s newborn son sitting on Naomi’s lap. Naomi has become his adoptive mother, the role Sarah wanted but never got.

In the book of Genesis, Abraham’s half-hearted compliance with Sarah’s requests signals his shrinking love for both Sarah and Ishmael, and foreshadows his willingness to sacrifice Isaac without a protest.10 In the book of Ruth, Ruth does everything Naomi says and more, while Boaz does everything Ruth says and more. The result is a tranquil household in which all three adults are loving and generous.

May we all learn to be as open-hearted as Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz became.

  1. For seven weeks after Passover we count the omer (עֺמֶר), a measure of barley. Click here to see my post: Omer: Counting 49.
  2. Numbers 28:26-31 (the maftir reading for both days of Shavuot) and Deuteronomy 16:9-12, 16:16-17 (part of the Torah reading for the second day of Shavuot).
  3. The rabbis of the first millennium C.E. assigned a biblical book to reach on each of the pilgrimage-festivals: The Song of Songs on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, and Ecclesiastes on Sukkot.
  4. Ruth 3:1-18.
  5. For more on the role of a redeemer, see Deuteronomy 25:5-6 and Genesis 38:6-26, or my post Yitro & Vayeishev: Fathers-in-Law.
  6. Ruth 3:10.
  7. The adoptive parent holds the infant on his or her knees as part of the adoption ritual in Genesis 30:3-13 and Genesis 48:5 and 48:12.
  8. Genesis 17:18-21.
  9. Genesis 21:14-17.
  10. Genesis 22:1-13.

 

Ruth: The Use of Power

May 17, 2018 at 9:33 pm | Posted in Proverbs, Ruth, Shavuot | Leave a comment

After seven weeks of counting measures of barley, as prescribed in the Torah, Jews get to celebrated the holy day of Shavuot (“Weeks”).  (See my post Omer: Counting 49.)  The special reading for this weekend is the book of Ruth, a story that includes two Shavuot themes: the barley harvest, and embracing a covenant with the God of Israel.

Ruth Gleaning, by R.F. Babcock, 19th century

Ruth is a native of Moab, a young widow who chooses to leave her land and follow her widowed and impoverished mother-in-law Naomi to a potentially bleak future in the Israelite town of Beit Lechem.  Ruth commits herself to Naomi, her god, and her people.  After they arrive, she gleans barley in fields belonging to Boaz, a wealthy and devout Israelite.

Both Ruth and Boaz are admirable for their kindness.  Ruth goes beyond her duty by committing herself to Naomi and doing whatever it takes to support her mother-in-law.

from Ruth and Boaz, by E.C.F. Holbein, 1830

When Boaz first sees Ruth gleaning in one of his fields, he praises her, asks God to bless her, gives her lunch, orders his men not to touch her, and tells them to leave extra stalks of barley in the rows for her.  Eventually Boaz goes beyond his duty by marrying Ruth and taking both women into his household.

The book praises Boaz and Ruth not only for their kindness and loyalty to family members whom they have no legal obligation to help, but also for the ways they use power.

And Naomi had a kinsman through her husband, an ish gibor chayil from the family of Elimelekh, and his name was Boaz.  (Ruth 2:1)

ish (אִישׁ) = man.

gibor (גִּבּוֹר) = champion, hero in battle, respected man in a community.  (From the root verb gavar,גָּבַר = excelled, accomplished, prevailed.)

chayil (חַיִל) = power.  By itself, the noun chayil = army or wealth—the two main kinds of power in the Ancient Near East.  When the word is immediately preceded by a noun indicating a human individual (such as ish or gibor), chayil serves as an adjective meaning powerful, leading in battle, influential due to wealth or social standing, or highly capable.

Boaz is introduced as an ish gibor chayil, a respected and powerful man.  As the story unfolds we learn that his power comes from his wealth and his standing in the town of Beit Lechem.  He is one of the elders who sits at the town gate to judge cases.  His opinions are respected, and in the legal case the book of Ruth describes, the other elders follow Boaz’s lead.1

Not all wealthy men use their power to do good.  The prophets Isaiah and Amos rail against the wealthy who supply themselves with luxuries while oppressing the poor.2  But Boaz uses his power to ensure justice in his town, good behavior among his workers, and provisions for two impoverished widows, Ruth and Naomi.

Although Boaz goes out of his way to be kind to them during the harvest, it does not occur to him to make any arrangement for them after the harvest is over.  So Naomi tells Ruth when Boaz will hold a harvest celebration for his men on the threshing-floor, and instructs her to bathe, anoint herself, dress up, and hide nearby until all the men have eaten, drunk, and dozed off.  Then she must uncover Boaz’s “feet” and lie down next to him.3  Naomi concludes:

“And he will tell you what you should do.”  (Ruth 3:4)

Both women understand the risk; Boaz might use his position to marry her, or he might take advantage of his position to use her and cast her aside.  Ruth answers:

Everything that you say to me, I will do.”  (Ruth 3:5)

On the threshing floor, artist unknown

She follows Naomi’s instructions, and then goes beyond them when Boaz wakes up.

In the middle of the night, the man gave a start, and felt around.  And hey!  A woman was lying at his feet!  He said: “Who are you?”  And she said: “I am Ruth, your maidservant.  And you shall spread the wing [of your robe] over your maidservant, because you are a redeeming kinsman.”  (Ruth 3:8-9)

Ruth practically orders Boaz to spread his wing over her, and tells him he should be her redeemer.  Technically the redeemer of a childless widow is her late husband’s brother.  He is required to redeem the widow from poverty by marrying her, giving her a son, and taking care of her late husband’s land until her son is old enough to inherit it.4  But both of Naomi’s sons are dead, as well as the rest of the men in their immediate family.  Boaz is only a distant relative, not even the closest one on the family tree.

Nevertheless, he feels honored that Ruth is telling him to marry her.

And he said: “Blessed are you to God, my daughter!  Your latest chesed is better than the first—[your] not going after the young men, whether poor or rich.  And now, my daughter, you must not be afraid.  Everything that you say to me, I will do it, because all [the elders] at the gate of my people know that you are an eishet chayil.”  (Ruth 3:10-11).

chesed (חֶסֶד) = loyalty to family obligations; kindness.

eishet (אֵשֶׁת) = woman of.  (From the noun ishah,  אִֺשָּה= woman, wife.)

Boaz is an ish chayil, powerful because of his social standing in Beit Lechem.  Now he declares that the elders of the town consider Ruth, an impoverished foreigner, an eishet chayil.  Clearly her power does not come from either wealth or military prowess.  But she is a highly capable worker, and she has earned a sterling reputation because of her steadfast chesed to Naomi.  Boaz respects her so much that he promises “Everything that you say to me, I will do.”

That is exactly what Ruth said to Naomi.  The sentence also echoes the words of the Israelites at Mount Sinai, when Moses reads the scroll of the covenant out loud to the people, and they reply: “Everything that God has spoken, we will do.”5  All three replies commit the speakers to complete trust and devotion.  Ruth is devoted to Naomi, Boaz becomes devoted to Ruth, and the Israelites declare their devotion to God.

The phrase eishet chayil appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible.  The other two occurrences are in the book of Proverbs.

An eishet-chayil is a crown for her husband,

            But one who acts shamefully is like rottenness in his bones.  (Proverbs 12:4)

The book of Proverbs ends with a long encomium to the eishet-chayil, beginning with:

An eishet-chayil who can find?

            Far beyond rubies is her value.

Her husband trusts her in his heart,

            And lacks no profit.  (Proverbs 31:10-11)

The poem then describes how an eishet-chayil works long hours spinning and weaving, collecting food and feeding her whole household, acquiring land and planting vineyards.  Her arms are strong.

Her palm she spreads out to the poor,

            And her hand she extends to the needy.  (Proverbs 31:20)

Like Boaz, an eishet chayil uses the wealth she increases through her own work to give to the poor.

Her mouth opens with wisdom,

          And teachings of chesed are on her tongue.  (Proverb 31:26)

By calling Ruth an eishet-chayil, Boaz explains why he will do everything she says.  Like the eishet-chayil in Proverbs, Ruth uses the power of her example and influence to counsel wisdom and kindness.

The poem about the eishet-chayil concludes:

Extol her for the fruit of her hand,

            And her deeds will praise her at the gates.  (Proverbs 31:31)

The ideal eishet-chayil, like Ruth, is praised for her deeds by the elders at the gate.

*

Both Boaz and Ruth are instinctively kind and loyal, full of chesed.  Both have personal power, chayil; Boaz because of his wealth and social standing, Ruth because of her good example.  Even Naomi has moments when she uses the power of her influence to do good.  She provides for one daughter-in-law by persuading her to return to her parents in Moab, and provides for Ruth by arranging a marriage from behind the scenes, following her hunch about Boaz despite the risks.

The book of Ruth begins with the deaths of three men whose widows lose everything, but it has  an extraordinarily happy ending: the women of Beit Lechem visit Boaz’s house, where he is happily supporting his pleasant old relative Naomi; his young, capable, kind, and loyal wife Ruth; and their newborn son, who will carry their dreams into the future.6

Sometimes people who have power to influence our lives are not so virtuous.  Sometimes, despite our good intentions, we fail to help those around us.  But the book of Ruth demonstrates that power can be dedicated to good deeds and kindness.

May each of us notice acts of kindness with gratitude, and practice using our own power to be kind to others.

  1. Ruth 4:1-13.
  2. g. Isaiah 1:16-17, 1:23-24, 10:1-3, 58:5-7; Amos 8:4-6.
  3. In the Torah, regalayim (רַגְלַיִם = pair of feet) is sometimes a euphemism for male genitals (e.g. 2 Kings 18:27, Isaiah 7:20), and legalot ervah (לְגאלּוֹת עֶרוָה = to uncover nakedness) is a euphemism for sexual intercourse (e.g. Leviticus 18:6-18).
  4. See Genesis 38:8-11 and Deuteronomy 25:5-10 for the laws of levirate marriage/yibum.
  5. Exodus 24:7.
  6. Oveid, the son of Ruth and Boaz, is the grandfather of King David. (Ruth 4:21)

Ruth: What’s in a name?

May 22, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Posted in Ruth, Shavuot | Leave a comment

Barley sheaf

This Saturday evening the Jewish holy day of Shavuot (“Weeks”) begins. Shavuot comes at the end of seven weeks of counting of the omer, a measure of harvested barley, every day.  Originally, Shavuot was a summer pilgrimage festival, when farmers brought the “first fruits” of their harvests to the temple. After the fall of the second temple in the year 70, Shavuot became the annual celebration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. So why do we read the Book of Ruth, the story of a Moabite convert, on Shavuot?

It was in the days of the judging of the judges, and there was a famine in the land, and a man went from Bethlehem of Judah to be an expatriate in the fields of Moab–he, and his wife, and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelekh, and the name of his wife was Naomi … (Ruth 1:1-2)

Naomi = My sweetness. She must have lived up to her name, at least in Moab, or her daughters-in-law would not have cried at the idea of parting from her.

Elimelekh died in Moab, and their two sons married Moabite women.  After about ten years with no offspring, the two sons died.   Then only the three widows remained: Naomi and her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth. Naomi heard that the famine in Bethlehem was over, and she headed back to her old home.  Her daughters-in-law followed her, but Naomi insisted they should return to their own mothers’ homes instead, where they would be more likely to remarry.

They raised their voice and they wept again.  And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law (goodbye), but Ruth clung to her. (Ruth 1:14)

Orpah = from oref = nape, back of the neck; dripping.  The Talmud pointed out that Orpah dripped tears, while Ruth Rabbah (rabbinic commentary compiled around the 6th century) noted that “she turned her back on her mother-in-law”.

Then Ruth said her famous words:  Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back from following you; because where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay; your people will be my people, and your god will be my god.  Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried … for (only) death will separate me from you. (Ruth 1:16-17)

When they came to Bethlehem, Naomi told the women of the city:  Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the bitterness of God to me is extreme. I was full when I went, and God has brought me back empty. (Ruth 1:20-21)

If only Mara were spelled the same way as mar = bitterness, Naomi’s remark would be straightforward.  However, the Hebrew text spells Mara with the letter alef at the end, and that changes the word to “apparition” or “mirror”. Perhaps Naomi had become so empty, so despairing, that she was only a shadow or reflection of her former sweet self. Perhaps she was like a ghost, the walking dead. She did not even introduce Ruth, the young stranger beside her.

Ruth (pronounced “Root” in Hebrew) probably comes from the same root as riutah = she drenched, she provided abundant drink. The Talmud said Ruth’s name foretold that her great-grandson David would drench God with songs and hymns.

Ruth Rabbah traced her name to a similar word with the letter alef in the middle, ra-atah = she saw, she perceived. According to Ruth Rabbah, Ruth was perceptive, considering carefully the words of Naomi.

More recent scholars speculate that Ruth comes from a similar word with the letter ayin in the middle, reut = female neighbor or friend; striving, aspiration.  Ruth was a faithful friend to Naomi even when Naomi gave up hope; and she never stopped striving to improve their lot, always working hard and thinking fast.

Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem destitute.  Ruth supported them by gleaning barley and wheat, and she chose to glean in the fields of Boaz, one of Elimelech’s relatives. When the harvest ended, Ruth, following Naomi’s instructions, came to Boaz in the night and suggested that he marry her.  As a childless widow, Ruth was entitled under Israelite law to get a son through her dead husband’s closest male relative.  This “levirate marriage” would “redeem” her dead husband’s inheritance.

Boaz was not the closest relative, but he was the most willing, and by the end of the book, he had married Ruth and given her a son. In an all-around happy ending, Naomi’s life was redeemed through her grandson. This boy, Oveid, became the grandfather of King David.

So why do we study Ruth on the holiday of Shavuot?

Like Shavuot, the book is about first fruits: Ruth gleans barley, the grain that is counted before Shavuot, and wheat, the grain the Israelites brought to the Temple on Shavuot in the form of loaves of bread.

The book of Ruth also addresses the other theme of  Shavuot, the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. Ruth is Judaism’s supreme example of a convert, and not just because of her famous words of commitment to Naomi and her religion. Traditional Judaism sees Ruth as the convert who merited being the great-grandmother of King David. What does conversion have to do with Sinai?  The Vilna Gaon, an 18th-century rabbinic authority, declared that everyone at Mount Sinai was a convert, because there was no Jewish religion until God gave the Torah to the people there–to the Israelites and to those who came with them out of Egypt.

I believe the names of the women in the Book of Ruth also comment on conversion and attachment to a religion. Naomi represents the native Jew, in both her sweetness–the blessing of giving so many blessings –and her bitterness, the mirror of her past suffering. Orpah, who turns her back on her mother-in-law’s religion and stays in Moab, reminds me of someone who converts to Judaism when she marries a Jew, but does not take the religion seriously. Ruth is the passionate convert, always striving. Even if other Jews ignore her, she keeps pouring her soul into the cup of kindness and offering it again and again.  She is also perceptive, seeing when to act, when to speak, and when to hold her peace. May we all be granted Ruth’s passion, her willingness to give, and her insight.

***

Last week we finished the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. This week we begin the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, as the Israelites get their marching orders.  (At least, the tribes are counted and appointed their camping positions on the journey ahead, and the Levites are given their duties for disassembling and transporting the mishkan, God’s dwelling place.  It takes a lot of organization to move all those people and all those holy items  from one camp to the next.)

I will be on a personal retreat during the month of June, organizing my own life, so I won’t be posting any new “Torah sparks” for the next month. If you are looking for a spark of inspiration on any Torah portion in the first half of the book of Numbers, you can go to my website, http://www.mtorah.com, and click on the tab “Blogs by Torah Portion”.  You’ll find my postings for the last two years on Numbers/Bemidbar. I’ll be back with new sparks in July!

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