Ruth- A Love Story
By Jean Gerber
Did you know that there are five megillot? Chances are you could only think of one, Megillat Esther, read on Purim with lots of noise, shouting, and laughter.
In fact, there are five megillot. Each has been, by rabbinic fiat, attached to a particular holiday in the Jewish year. We will address this in a later essay. But for now, our focus is on Shavuot and the challenging story of Ruth and Naomi in the Book of Ruth. Occurring during the barley harvest festival in the days of Ancient Israel, it coincided with the timing of Shavuot. This made Megillat Ruth a perfect fit.
In The Bible’s Many Voices, teacher and biblical translator Michael Carasick discusses what is revealed by the authors of the books of the Hebrew Bible. Ruth, he argues, reveals a woman’s perspective, so it must have been written by a woman. How does Carasick come to this conclusion?
Grammar, he says, does not fail us. Of course everything Ruth and Naomi say is in the feminine; but moreover, the “people” as in “the people said” (Ruth 1:19) is written in the feminine gender. Hebrew grammar doesn’t lie.
Contrast this with Moses’ instructions to all the Israelites as they stand at the foot of Mt. Sinai on the eve of the Revelation: “be ready for the day after tomorrow; do not approach a woman.” (Exodus 19:15) So the people he means to rally are clearly just the men. Again, most of the time in the Torah, “the people” seem to include and address the men only.
Not so in Ruth. Ruth and Naomi are welcomed back to Bethlehem by the women. When Obed is finally born to Ruth and Boaz, the women say, “a son is born to Naomi.” Not to Boaz.
But we must give Boaz his due. On seeing Ruth gleaning for the first time, he repeatedly warns the men working in the field to leave her alone, not to harass her, and to leave plenty of fallen grain for her to pick up. And he makes sure that, when the harvesters break for lunch, Ruth stays close by, protected from unwanted advances.
Boaz was the first man in the Bible to actively enforce a workplace policy against sexual harassment. Bravo, Boaz!
In order to marry Ruth, Boaz attends a court of town elders; they discuss a levirate marriage for Ruth to preserve the male line of her late husband, Machlon. His closest relative agrees to oversee the land owned by the late Machlon, but refuses to also marry Ruth. This opens up the chance for Boaz to marry her.
That poor guy who refused Ruth is subtly made fun of: he goes nameless for all eternity, merely called “plony-almony,” literally some-nobody. Not only is this a book by and for women, it gets a little revenge on some poor nameless chap.
And then we are told that Ruth, a convert and Moabite (a tribe traditionally looked upon as an enemy of Israel), was the great-grandmother of King David, from whose line will spring the mashiach.
Megillat Ruth stands as a remarkable and timeless commentary on the vital role of people who choose to become Jewish, in enriching, strengthening and helping build our People.
Addendum from Jonathan Berkowitz:
Lag BaOmer provides foreshadowing of the link between Shavuot and the story of Ruth. Read the transliteration backwards: Re Moab gal. Ruth is “about a Moab woman”.