A family has been decimated. Father and sons have died, leaving only their widows behind. Naomi, the matriarch, cries out in her grief and rage. She comments sardonically: she is far too old to bear and raise children for her adult daughters-in-law to marry. She has no more sons in her body. The obvious solution is impossible. She cannot imagine another. Cut off from any foreseeable future, without children or grandchildren, Naomi is, on some level, dying. God, she says, has stricken her; there is nothing more to hope for.
But the Holy One knows what we must learn again and again: Human beings are responsible for creating the perfect world on this earth, not God.
Even in the midst of her grief, Naomi reveals how deeply she cares for Orpah and Ruth, calling them “my daughters” rather than “daughters-in-law.” Her own sorrow and bitterness does not prevent her from acting generously, wishing them renewed life and new hope: “Turn back, each of you, to her mother’s house. May YHVH deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and me” (1:8). Naomi can think about their future even when she believes she herself has none.
Ruth, in turn, braves new circumstances and a series of unknowns – sometimes dangerous ones – to make sure her mother-in-law survives. According to Boaz, the entire community observes Ruth’s hesed: “I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before” (Ruth 2:11).
In Pirkei Avot the rabbis say that one mitzvah leads inevitably to the wish to do another. The Book of Ruth – despite its darker moments – suggests that human beings can rely on the kindness of others.
Shalom is what we, as spiritual leaders and congregants, wish for. Yet, we know that all sorts of ills can be acted out in congregational settings – jealousies and projections lead to gossip and slander. Most communities suffer from the pernicious effects of lashon hara. Everything that can go wrong does – in any age and in any community. We are the recipients of a plethora of biblical texts demonstrating how ancient our frailties are and how dangerously they can affect whole communities. But in the Book of Ruth, things go well because individuals act well, and with higher purpose.
Not all, of course, and not always. During most of the Book of Ruth, the townspeople do little more than note Naomi’s return and Ruth’s hard work. They do not appear to take any action to help the two struggling widows. It is Ruth who secures survival for her mother-in-law by accompanying her home and by going out to glean. Boaz extends gleaning laws for Ruth’s benefit, even going beyond the requirements of halakha, and instructing his workers to pull stalks from the heaps to leave for Ruth to glean (2:15). Boaz and Ruth both teach hesed by example.
In the Book of Ruth, vulnerable individuals have the hope of redemption. Outsiders demonstrate the impact of ethical action and remind the insiders of their own commitments.
Irving Greenberg insists that “God’s self-restraint in not preventing the Holocaust was a divine cry to humans to step up and stop the evil.” If the covenant indeed now relies on our recognition that God’s human partners are responsible for creating the perfect world on this earth, then the Book of Ruth is model enough for the tasks ahead.
Note: This post is dedicated to the memory of Ruth Kingberg, zichrona l‘vracha a Holocaust survivor who served my community as matriarch for a decade. Ruth was a model of hesed.