The Story of Ruth (Part 2) - Beyond Givers and Takers 

In Part 1 (click here to read) we looked at the first chapter of the Book of Ruth and noticed its cross-referencing to the age-old problem of Sedom. The civilisation of Sedom challenged the very premise of Torah and of Abraham: chessed (lovingkindness). When one person gives, the recipient feels shame and loses dignity. This is a problem that threatens to turn givers into controllers, recipients into dependent people, and threatens to turn Torah observance into slavish obedience, and rob us of true relationship. It is this age-old problem that led Adam to rebel against God, and Israel to repeatedly turn away from God.  For centuries the problem had never been fully resolved. The challenge of Sedom lived on in the derivative culture of Moav. Ruth, princess of Moav, ‘returned’ to Israel to heal the pain of Lot’s departure, to provide the answer to this challenge, and thus to transform our relationship to Judaism ever after. 

 

The second chapter of the story of Ruth involves the encounter between Ruth and the man who will ultimately marry her, Boaz. He receives little introduction in the text, but he appears to be a wealthy landowner. Later we discover that he has sufficient authority to convene the Council of Elders, and even to clarify Torah law. That would make him a ‘Shofet’ – judge – not just of Bethlehem, but a person whose authority would be recognised throughout Israel.[1] 

 

Their encounter begins when he enters the field and sees Ruth gathering grains. Having strangers enter a field during the harvest would not have been unusual in Israel. The Torah specifically instructs farmers to allow the poor to follow the harvesters and to pick up any leftovers, as well as having an entire section of the field for them to harvest for themselves.  

 

But most of the poor who would have entered would have been men. And they almost for sure would have been well known to Boaz. Ruth was a young woman and clearly a stranger. Boaz takes great care to let her know she will be safe and looked after in this field.  

 

Boaz said to Ruth, “Listen to me, daughter. Don’t go to glean in another field. Don’t go elsewhere, but stay here close to my girls. Keep your eyes on the field they are reaping, and follow them. I have ordered the men not to molest you. And when you are thirsty, go to the jars and drink some of [the water] that the men have drawn.” (Ruth 2:8-9) 

 

At this point one would have expected Ruth to respond in deep gratitude, and acceptance of this incredible treatment. Indeed, her first reaction is to bow and express her gratitude.[2] But then, rather than leaving it at that, she proceeds to interview him, trying to ascertain the motivation behind Boaz’s kindness: 

 

‘...Why have I found favour in your eyes to be so friendly to me, when I am a foreigner?’ (Ruth 2:10) 

 

It turns out that this apparently bizarre behaviour is totally consistent with her plan to begin with. When she first proposes to her mother in law that she go out to a field to gather food for them, she uses the precise same phrase: 

 

Ruth the Moabite suggested to Naomi: ‘I should go to the field and glean amongst the ears of grain, after I find favour in the eyes [of the owner]’ (Ruth 2:2) 

 

Somehow this notion of ‘finding favour’ is key for Ruth. She does not want to gather in any old field. If the owner is resentful, or even if they let her in because under Torah law this is part of their charity, then she would walk away. After all she is a Moabite, and will never let herself sacrifice her independence and dignity. For Ruth it is essential that before she lets someone give to her, they have to recognise that this is not about neediness and giving. This is about respect, relationship and mutuality. So she will not just let anyone give to her. She must first interview them to understand their motives. And Boaz passes the test with flying colours: 

 

Boaz replied, telling her: ‘I have been told about everything that you did for your mother-in-law after your husband died; how you left behind your father and mother and the land of your birth to join a people you did not know before. May God reward your acts and may your reward be filled [Sheleima] from the God of Israel – the One under Whose wings you have come in to shelter.’ (Ruth 2:11-12) 

 

Boaz’s response is simply astounding. He starts by effectively saying that ‘we owe you’ for the care you took of one of our elder stateswomen  Naomi. But he does not stop there. In his effusive praise of Ruth, he uses words that compare her journey to that of Abraham, and suggest that she dwells under the shadow of God Himself – something the town was lacking and in desperate need of. The effect of what he is saying is that this is not about charity nor even sympathy; this is about us having the honour of being able to do something for someone who has done more for us than we can possibly repay. Only God can repay.[3]

 

It was exactly what Ruth was hoping for: 

 

She replied: I am finding favour in your eyes! You have comforted me and spoken to the heart of your maidservant, for I will not actually be [treated] like one of your maidservants!’ (Ruth 2:13) 

 

It sounds as if Ruth is employing her Moabite attitudes of assertive independence, and resisting being the recipient of kindness. But that is only partly correct. In fact, as Boaz pointed out, she already let go of her upbringing and her culture. She has already placed herself under the wing of the Divine Presence. So she is clearly not just following the old Moabite rejection of kindness. 

Indeed, we already sensed at the end of the first chapter that she has ‘returned’ to Israel, reversing the movement of her great grandfather Lot who abandoned Abraham precisely because of his rejection of kindness. In ‘returning’ she is clearly rejecting the way of Lot and coming back to Israel. Yet she is doing far more than that. She is acutely aware of the power of the Lot-Sedom-Moabite attack against kindness. She could not simply ignore it. What she brings to Betlehem and to Israel is neither Moabite attitude, nor ignoring the critique. She has come with a solution. 

 

Boaz himself understands the significance of all this, and recognises that she has the potential to introduce ideas and attitudes into Israel that can lead to healing of the local community, and of the nation as a whole. Through Ruth will come national integration and the oneness of the nation. His words and actions, whether prophetically intended, subconscious, or Divinely influenced, allude in subtle ways to the recognition of all of this.[4]

 

Yet at this stage we have not yet seen what Ruth is positively bringing to the table. We do not need to wait too long. She returns to her mother in law with a staggering amount of grains – enough to feed them for a long while. Boaz had mobilised his entire work force to find ways to help Ruth. The bounty that she came home with spoke for itself.  

 

Her mother in law asked her: ‘where did you gather today?... may the one who took care of you be blessed!’ (Ruth 2:19) 

 

Ruth's reply is unbelievable: 

 

‘The name of the man I worked for is Boaz!’ (ibid.) 

 

At first glance it sounds like a mistake. She did no work for Boaz at all! He and his entire operation had been mobilised to work for her, and to look after her. Yet she sees things radically differently. In the eyes of Ruth she did for Boaz far more than Boaz did for her. It is a stunning paradigm change that will have radical ramifications. 

 

The poor person does more for the rich donor than the rich donor does for the poor person. This is learned from the words that Ruth says to Naomi... Ruth did not say ‘[the name of the man] who did something for me...’ but ‘whom I did something for.’ I did so much and achieved so much good for him, in return for some food that he gave me! (Ruth Rabbah 5:9) 

 

Ruth’s logic turns out to be impeccable. When a donor gives to one who needs, the donor transfers food, money or some other material good. What they get in return is dignity, meaning, and purpose. Those are worth vastly more than anything they give. They are invaluable. So in fact when a poor person knocks at the door they are offering something priceless to the donor – they are offering the most precious gift of all – the opportunity to become significant, to attain meaning and to feel like their life was truly worth living. Ruth does not feel the shame of dependence at all. She understands full well that if this were a one-way gift then indeed she would be the taker, Boaz the giver, and she would have lost all dignity. But that is not her perspective. She sees a world in which the whole point of life is acts of kindness, but acts of kindness are never one-way. They are not about giving and taking. They require two people who share the act together. 

 

When Ruth entered the field, she knew that she had something incredible to offer the owner of the field – she could offer to join with that owner to help he or she attain the infinite significance of the act of giving. But it would need to be a two-way relationship, and she was not planning on giving eternity away for free. That is why she needed to interview him, to see where he was really coming from. If he would view himself as the wealthy guy in control who would gain dignity through the robbing of the dignity of the poor person, then she would not allow him anywhere near her. Boaz passed that test. He was indeed worthy of being the giver. 

 

Her gift was to let someone else be a giver. That meant that both of them were givers. Both were sharing together to produce something that neither of them could do alone – an act of lovingkindness. Their act was not one of giving and taking. It was sharing and receiving. It was a moment that brought a paradigm shift to the world and its repercussions will ring to the end of history.  

 

Through the third and fourth chapters this seed of an idea will mature, at first offering new possibilities in relationships, then changing communities, before finally offering a new model of nationhood and kingship.  

 

But already now, in this striking insight, we can feel an answer to the question of how kindness can exist without crushing its recipient. The secret is to recognise that acts of kindness really are a two-way relationship. When we are told that ‘[God] creates a world of loving-kindness’ that does not entail that we lose our dignity at all. To the contrary. What it means is that God has created a world that needs recipients who can share in that act of kindness. True kindness can never be one way; it must always be created between the one who shares and the one who receives.  

 

Shavuot, the festival that allows us to relive the giving of Torah, need not challenge us at all. God cannot give if we cannot receive. That is why in our kabolas haTorah  our receiving of Torah – we turn God into a giver. Torah, in fact, does not give us a portion in the World-to-Come for free. It is the very opposite. As we will learn in the next section, Torah allows us to engage in relationship with God. 

 

The relationship between the donor and recipient is not equal, but it is symbiotic, and it is mutual. And so it is with Torah. God offers us to become partners with Him in perfecting His world. He offers us the practices, individual, communal and national, that turn us into vessels to receive the gift of relationship that He wants to give. Through the eyes of Ruth, we do not lose significance with such a gift. To the contrary, in receiving it and in keeping it, we turn God into the giver. And in doing so we achieve the greatest significance of all. 

 

 

[1] Indeed the Talmud (Bava Basra 91a) identifies Boaz with the only person who lived in Bethlehem and had such a status: Ivtzan (Judges 12:8-10) 

 

[2] ‘She fell on her face, bowing down to the ground...’ (Ruth 2:10)

 

[3] Hinted within Boaz’s words is that the ultimate repayment will be that she will mother of King Solomon who will build the Temple in Jerusalem and who is the ancestor of Moshiach 

 

‘...may your reward be filled [Sheleima]’ - the word sheleima is written Shelomo (Solomon). Boaz was alluding to  Solomon being descended from her. 

(Midrash, Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 16) 

 

[4] See eg Ruth Raba 5:5 based on Ruth 2:14 that reads  Boaz to be telling Ruth she is not a maidservant but one of the mothers of the nation (apparently referring to her as ‘the mother of royalty, cf.Divrei Hayamim I 4:23, Bava Basra 91b). See also Boaz’s words: ‘come over here (‘halom’)…' (2:14). The term halom is an unusual word that is understood to connote royalty. See Shmuel II 7:18, Shabbos 113b, Zevachim 102a etc. These are just a few of the examples throughout the story.  

 

- May 20th 2020

About the Author

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Rabbi Daniel Rowe Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country. Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".  Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.

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