She was a Moabite princess who converted to Judaism in the 10th century BCE, but what does her story have to do with the events at Mount Sinai more than 300 years earlier?
(Continued from last week)
Ruth the Moabite was looking for the missing 606 commandments not simply because she was looking for the truth and the right way to live, although no doubt these impulses were also a part of her drive to conversion. But chiefly, she wanted to attach herself to God to cleave to Him, to connect herself to the source of all life and being.
The only way to do this was to attach herself to a person who was already attached in this way to God. Thus she followed Naomi the person, rather than the abstract truth.
We read her story on Shavuot to teach us that this is the type of Torah acceptance we are seeking. We are not after God’s laws. We are seeking to attach ourselves to God Himself.
The second major thesis offered by the commentators for reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot is also hinted to in her name. She is named Ruth because her great grandson, King David showered God with his songs and praises. (Yalkut, Tehilim, 247) The word rave in Hebrew, a play on the letters of Ruth’s name means “to shower,” and David authored the book of Psalms, the basic hymnbook to God of the majority of mankind. According to tradition, Shavuot is David’s birthday as well as the day on which he passed away, and his full genealogy is recited at the conclusion of the Book of Ruth.
The appreciation of this thesis requires some more background:
God said to Moses: ‘You shall not distress Moab, and you shall not provoke war with them.’ (Deut. 2:9) Why would it have occurred to Moses to wage war with Moab without God’s permission? Moses reasoned thus: If the Midionites who only came to assist Moab (in the war Moab waged with Israel described in Parshat Balak) the Torah commanded, Harass the Midionites and smite them; for they harassed you through their conspiracy that they conspired against you … (Numbers 25:17-18). Surely the same policy should be applied against the Moabites who were the instigators. But God told Moses, ‘I think differently! I still have a wonderful treasure to pull out, Ruth the Moabite.'(Talmud, Baba Kama 38a)
Not only was Ruth David’s great grandmother. It was specifically she that was required to be able to bring David into the world. The need for her was so great that the entire Moabite nation was sustained for several hundred years in her merit while the world waited for Ruth to be born. Can we find any sources to uncover why Ruth the Moabite specifically was needed to bring the line of David from whom would descend the Messiah into the world?
[The angels urged Lot, saying,] ‘Take your wife and your two daughters who are present.’ (Genesis 19:15) The Hebrew word nimzoas [“who are present”] in this verse is a reference to two important discoveries: Ruth the Moabite and Na’amah the Amonite. It is written I found my servant David. Where did God find him? In Sodom (Yalkut, Lech lecho, 70).
When God destroyed Sodom he saved Lot because of his two daughters. The daughters, believed that they and their father were the only people left on earth, engaged in acts of incest with him. As a result one gave birth to the progenitor of Moab, and the other to the progenitor of Amon. It would thus seem that Ruth was needed because she was a descendant of Lot? And who was Lot?
Now these are the chronicles of Terah: Terah begot Abram, Nahor and Haran; and Haran begot Lot … And Abram and Nahor took themselves wives. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milka, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milka and the father of Iscah. (Genesis 11:27-28)
Close examination of this passage reveals an astounding piece of information. It turns out that Haran, Abram’s brother, was the grandfather of all of the most important Jewish women in history. The rabbis teach that Iscah was Sara (see Rashi Ibid), Rebecca was Milka’s grand-daughter, and all of Jacob’s wives were her great grand daughters. Lot was Haran’s son and therefore Ruth was also a grand-daughter.
Can this be a coincidence? Let us attempt to uncover the significance of all this.
Electricity was known and understood for many years by the time Edison was born. Graham Bell uncovered nothing new about the nature of sound waves. Yet without these two geniuses the knowledge of electricity and sound waves would not have benefited the world. There is a special genius involved in the exploitation of ideas, just as there is a genius in their discovery. In Hebrew this genius is known as binah, often translated as “understanding,” and it is the special property of women.
In the prelude to Sinai, we read:
So shall you say to the House of Jacob and relate to the Children of Israel (Exodus 18:3)
Rashi explains why the seeming redundancy “House of Jacob,” and “Children of Israel.” The House of Jacob refers to Jewish women — Jewish women are the Jewish house.
The ideas of Judaism come to life in the Jewish home and are translated into reality by the guidance of the Jewish woman.
The Jewish man carries the obligation of learning the Torah, but it is the Jewish woman who translates its ideas into the realities of everyday living. Abraham was the genius who brought the knowledge of God into the world, but it was his brother Haran who carried the seeds of the genius required to translate the knowledge that Abraham discovered into everyday life. Thus the greatest Jewish women were Haran’s descendants.
The Jewish Kingdom is a reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven carries in it a great power. This power is to redeem and regenerate and ensure that no part of what is noble and precious about humanity is ever lost.
Thus an act of heaven was required when Lot, Haran’s son, left Abraham and became lost in Sodom. The powers of holiness and greatness that were buried in him seemed forever lost to the service of God. But because God is the absolute King and controls history even as man is free to do what he wants, He has the capacity to ensure the recovery of this lost greatness. This is the true significance of the Kingdom of Heaven.
To ensure that nothing good is ever lost and is ultimately recovered requires eternal vigilance. The conversion of Ruth made possible the recovery of the lost power of Haran required to bring about the birth of the Jewish kingdom, reflective of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. She carried the binah necessary to translate it into every day life.
LOT’S MISTAKE CORRECTED
To emphasize the aspect of redemption involved in the establishment of the Jewish Kingdom, the marriage of Ruth to Boaz — which ultimately resulted in the birth of David — was a “levirated” marriage. This type of marriage is specifically mandated by the Torah as a means of recovering the soul that left the world without managing to produce any issue. Thus the entire purpose of Ruth’s marriage was to ensure that the soul of her first husband Machlon who died — and the spiritual power and greatness that was latent in it — would not be lost to the world or to Israel.
The recovery of all this lost potential happened through the correction of Lot’s error by his great-great-granddaughter Ruth.
Lot left Abraham over worldly possessions. After all, he was a believer himself, he knew the truth, he had learned how to serve God on his own, and he thought he did not need Abraham. As it was better for him in Sodom materially, and as he didn’t perceive any spiritual necessity to remain with Abraham, he left. His error was that to serve God it is not enough to be aware of the absolute truth. You have to be attached to Him. The attachment to God comes about through the attachment to the Talmud Chacham. He should have stayed with Abraham.
The Gaon of Vilna shows how Ruth corrected this mistake: by a steadfast yearning for an attachment to God.
One of the laws of conversion that we learn from the story of Ruth is the need to discourage the potential convert. Thus Naomi talked her daughter in law Orpa out of conversion, and she attempted to dissuade Ruth as well. At a certain point Naomi stopped.
The Gaon asks: How did Naomi know exactly when to stop? He explains: at the point she stopped, it says, When she saw that she strained to go with her, she stopped arguing with her. (Ruth 1:18) Naomi was much older than Ruth and Ruth should have had no trouble at all keeping up with Naomi; yet Naomi saw that it was a strain on Ruth to keep pace with her. From this she realized that Ruth was torn; there was a part of her that was reluctant to take the step of conversion.
Ruth was a Moabite princess according to tradition. She was used to the best things in life. She was also a beautiful young woman in the prime of life. The step she was taking would introduce her to a life of poverty; her mother-in-law had lost everything she had through her misfortunes and was returning home entirely destitute. So, in going with Naomi, Ruth was leaving a life of high status to become a lowly convert of questionable status. It was not even clear if a Jew would even be permitted to marry her. A large part of her said, “Why go to Israel? You can serve God wherever you are. After all these years of living in a Jewish house, you know all the laws and can observe all the commandments right where you are. There is no need for this great self sacrifice.”
Ruth was torn. But what she wanted was closeness to God, she wanted attachment. Staying in Moab observing the commandments would not give her that; only attachment to the Talmud Chacham would. She decided to go with Naomi to join the Jewish people no matter what, but the strain of her inner conflict made it difficult for her to keep up. This is when Naomi stopped discouraging her. Naomi understood Ruth and saw that she was after an attachment to God. She had absorbed the true message of Judaism.