Parshat Bamidbar – The Book of Ruth: True Love
A graduate of OTS’s Claudia Cohen Women Educators Institute, Sharona Hassan serves as Rubissa (Rabbanit) at Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation in Seattle, Washington, where she also serves as youth director. In her role as educator and community builder, Rubissa Sharona impacts upon people of all ages through a variety of media with the goal of helping people connect to themselves, one another, and the Divine.
As Shavuot marks our receiving the Torah, the ultimate connection between the Jewish people and the Almighty, it would seem that the special text of the day would be all about our love for Him, like Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs. Instead we read Megillat Rut, the Book of Ruth, a truly unique text which at face value has only a tenuous connection to the festival. Yet by looking carefully at Ruth’s story we will see it is the foundation not only of this holiday, but also our core Jewish values and the keys to Ultimate Redemption. Exploring Megillat Rut reveals a beautiful tale of love ben adam l’chavero, of people’s support for one another.
Megillat Rut is aptly named as it follows the journey of Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth. The text opens with the word ‘vayhi’ which in biblical literature means times are difficult. Indeed these are very painful times, as we quickly learn about a famine, the death of Naomi’s husband and the death of her two sons. This introduction of hard times, unfortunately is not unique to this family or to this period in history. Much of Jewish history could begin with the word ‘vayhi’.
In contrast, ‘David’, the last word of Megillat Rut, offers a more overt look to the future and to better times. With this singular word, we have received the introduction and the lineage to David, the great king of Israel, whose impressive resume includes conquering and establishing Jerusalem and writing Tehillim.
Looking at how the story of Ruth moves from a place of enormous pain to the Davidic dynasty is the lesson for Shavuot and all time. The Megillah begins by describing the struggles of Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah. The dialogue opens with Naomi trying to send her daughters-in-law away, with berachot, kisses, and tears. Although the time is painful, the connection between these women is deeply heartwarming. Orpah heeds her mother-in-law’s words while Ruth follows her heart and continues with Naomi to Bet Lehem, to Israel.
When they arrive, Naomi is greeted by the local women. With great transparency, Naomi informs them of her pain and struggles. The next greeting comes from Boaz, a crucial character, as he calls to others, “May the Almighty be with you!” They respond, “May Hashem bless you!”
The beautiful interpersonal care and spiritual awareness in this exchange is furthered by the ensuing conversation. Boaz observes someone new, a stranger in their midst. Although the reaction to a foreigner is often negative, Boaz is incredibly proactive and kind. He demands the others look after Ruth’s well-being, and then approaches her with care and support. He offers food, safety, and assistance from him and all of his people.
Eventually Boaz and Ruth marry, but their love story begins here at their first interaction. It is not a tale of romance, like Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs. It is noticing a stranger, inquiring for their wellbeing, and providing for their needs. This is the ‘love story’ of ben adam l’chavero, of people’s support for one another.
When Ruth queries his kindness, Boaz explains that he heard her story and knows her goodness. His words revolve around compassion, generosity, and closeness to Hashem.
These themes flow through all of the dialogue, all of the conversations, throughout the Megillah. Ruth, Naomi, Boaz, and anonymous personalities, male and female, speak to one another in encouraging kindness, support, and a connection with the Divine. No occurrences in the text are miraculous or even remarkable. It simply chronicles the lives of regular people and their struggles and successes in the land of Israel, some 3000 years ago.
Except few people live their lives like this today! Obviously times have changed with yibbum, levirate marriage, not being encouraged and the barley harvest using more technology. But ultimately the struggles of mankind have not changed. Unfortunately what has changed is the way we speak to and treat others. It is rare to find someone who consistently speaks and acts like the personalities in Megillat Rut.
Shavuot, the Revelation, binds us in our relationship with Hashem, ben adam l’makom. Reading Megillat Rut on this day should open our eyes to its corollary, ben adam l’chavero, the commandments which require us to care for mankind.
Are we greeting friends and strangers with blessings of connection to our Creator? Are we truly supporting our friends with words and actions of assistance and encouragement? And have we sought out the stranger to welcome, comfort, and uplift them? These are the types of words and actions which moved a family from the pain of ‘vayhi’ to King David. Emulating this behavior and incorporating it into our own lives will move us from our personal pains and struggles to bringing Mashiach.