Ruth coming home

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Shavuot is a festival that has something for everyone. There’s delicious cheesecake, all-night Torah learning, baskets of fruit being brought by the children to shul, and of course, my favourite, the reading of Megillat Ruth.

When reading Ruth’s story, it’s easy to simply take it as a rags-to-riches, Cinderella type of fairytale. But nothing in Tanach is simple and if we look a bit deeper, there are so many complex layers and lessons to be learnt.

We are first introduced to Ruth as a unique and powerful character in chapter 1. Here, we are told that while Orpah kisses her mother-in-law Naomi goodbye, Ruth clings to her. The Megilla then continues: “And so Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, with her – who returned from the fields of Moav.”

The obvious question here is: How can Ruth “return” when she has never been to Israel before?

According to the Midrashim, Ruth is a Moabite princess, and so we have to wonder why the word “return” is used for Ruth’s journey to Israel with Naomi. At this stage, Ruth is not Jewish and Israel is not yet her home. Dr Yael Ziegler sheds some light in her book, Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy.

We often underestimate the selfless act of kindness that Ruth makes in her choice to remain with her mother-in-law. Remember that in those times, your safety, security and future was dependent upon a man, whether it was a husband, a father or a son. Women didn’t have their own property, and so being widowed without children meant poverty, no protection and an uncertain future.

Ruth chooses this over returning to her parents, a palace and luxury. The commentaries say that she was beautiful and young enough to remarry, so it isn’t a simple act of kindness that Ruth makes but one with a lot of self-sacrifice and selflessness.

Ruth is a Moabitess and, as such, carries the genetic make-up of the people from Moav, a nation characterised as miserly and unkind. In Devarim, it says: “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the congregation of Hashem, even their 10th generation shall not enter the congregation of Hashem, to eternity, because… they did not greet you with bread and water on the road when you were leaving Egypt, and because he hired against you Balaam, son of Bear, of Pethar, Aram Naharaim, to curse you.”

In contrast, the Jewish people are descendants of Avraham, known for his kindness and hospitality. So Ruth’s self-sacrifice and kindness to her mother-in-law isn’t simply illogical for the times, it also goes against her natural tenancies as a Moabitess.

The Tanach hints to Ruth potentially being the female version of Avraham. When Avraham begins his journey to finding G-d, Hashem tells him in Parshat Lech Lecha (Bereishit): “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

Comparatively, when Boaz is introduced to Ruth, he says to her (Megillat Ruth): “I have been fully informed of all that you have done for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband – how you left your mother and father and the land of your birth, and went to a people you had not known yesterday or earlier.”

The connection between Ruth and Avraham goes far deeper than just similar characteristics and wording. Moav is the product of an incestuous union between Lot, the nephew of Avraham, and Lot’s eldest daughter. The story occurs in Bereishit, where the city of Sodom has been destroyed and Lot and his daughters are the only survivors. They were saved by angels who had previously disguised themselves as guests.

Lot’s daughters mistakenly believe that they are the last people alive. They get their father drunk and sleep with him to continue the human race.

It’s this warped logic, construed as a kindness in saving the world, that produces the nations of Amon and Moav. We get a hint as to where the daughters have seen kindness perverted before in their father’s home with a story just prior to this one. In Bereishit, there is a description of the angels coming to visit Lot. Lot, being Avraham’s nephew, has learnt how to be hospitable and kind (but we’ll see that living in Sodom has also influenced him), and invites the guests in to eat and rest.

However, the people of Sodom find out and a mob surrounds Lot’s house, calling for the guests. Lot, in a perversion of kindness and loyalty to his guests, offers the mob his daughters instead.

Ruth, therefore, comes as a “tikkun”, a correction and healing to Lot’s story. Ruth’s kindness is pure and selfless, an Avraham-like kindness. She is able to overcome her essence of Moav and her people’s natural tendencies, and essentially redefine herself and change her very being.

She is the Moabitess who “returns” to the original Avraham-like kindness. It is this returning, according to Dr Yael Ziegler, that the Megilla is referring to.

Shavuot is a special time for us to reflect, reconnect and commit ourselves to our relationship with Hashem and the people around us. Take the time to explore what your essence is and be inspired by Ruth to make the choices that will lead to the kind of destiny that we all have latent within us. Be the change you want to see in this world. Chag Sameach!


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