Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Thread of Kindness

Upon a cursory reading of the book of Ruth, it may be hard to perceive why this simple, seemingly provincial story was canonized as part of the Bible. However, upon deeper consideration of the themes present in this megilah, universal lessons are revealed, which make our heroine, Ruth worthy not only of the canon, but of serious study, and her book as a moral text which sheds light on the social and religious bonds that give strength and versatility to a healthy society.

Of the many themes available in the book, this essay will focus upon that of חסד, loving-kindness. This word recurs repeatedly in Ruth, and, indeed, sets the motif of kindness playing a central role. While the firm, legal strictures of Halachah give a baseline by which we measure our actions, it is לפנים משורת הדין, extra-legal kindness which decides the survival of a person, family or society at large. Halacha cannot legislate each and every way in which one must help his fellow, but this does not weaken the importance of such non-legally required actions. Indeed, כופין על מידת סדום (see תוס' בבא בתרא יב: ד"ה כגון). It is this necessary (though unlegislated) חסד which forms a parallel structure which unifies the book of Ruth. On the one hand, we see Elimelech and the results of his actions, and on the other, we see Ruth and Boaz, and the effects of their activities.

At the beginning of Ruth, we are introduced to Elimelech, one of the leaders of the generation. The Malbim, echoing the midrash, explains that as a result of the famine, the poor would throw themselves before the rich, demanding sustenance. Elimelech fled this situation, fearing that his whole fortune would be consumed before the multitudes. Although one is not required to become poor himself by distributing all of his wealth to the needy, Elimelech is viewed as a selfish and flawed character by the midrash. "Anyone who turns a blind eye from those who need charity, is as though he has no God," quotes Malbim. Perhaps by the strict letter of the law, Elimelech cannot be faulted for not giving his all, on a חסד level, he failed. A famine, a time when society is at the verge of collapse, is precisely when greatness is required, when going above and beyond the call of simple duty is demanded. (We leave aside the sin of leaving the land of Israel, for which Elimelech is called to task by חז"ל. Even had he not left, his relative stinginess would remain reason for rebuke.)

Instead, Elimelech leaves his people and settles temporarily in Moav. And in the familiar irony of מדה כנגד מדה, as he forsook Judean society, leaving it to crumble, so does his own family security and cohesion begin to disintegrate. Elimelech dies, and his sons marry outside of the faith. They also, eventually, die, and leave their mother bemoaning her fate, telling her friends from happier times, "do not call me Naomi [= pleasant], rather call me Bitter, for God has made my life exeedingly bitter." (1:20) Judea thrives again, despite Elimelech's abandonment, for God has not abandoned the Jews; however, He seems to have abandoned the family of Elimelech. (This is reminiscient of another Jewish heroine, Esther, being warned precisely of this possible result by Mordechai, "...for if you are silent now [and choose not to use your position as queen to help your bretheren], salvation and comfort will be given to the Jews from another source, while you and your father's house will be lost." (Esther 4:14))

The Bible sets Elimelech as an example of someone who shied away from חסד. He went as far as the law required, ignored the larger picture of the situation regarding the starving Jews of the time, and refused to be swayed by the historical context of his actions into going beyond the letter of the law, into the realm of loving-kindness. For society cannot hope to exist by virtue of the letter of the law. Mutual consideration and feelings of extra-legal responsibility towards one another are critical in order for a nation to function. Avot declares (5:10) that "what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours...this is the trait of Sodom." When we think that strict legal possession should decide who gets a bite of bread, without considering our liability towards others, we exhibit the features of corruption, callousness and evil; in a word, Sodom. By acting in this way, Elimelech invited upon himself and his immediate family the very consequences he would have allowed to befall his nation.

How does one redeem a family whose lives, honor and wealth are deteriorated by a lack of חסד? This is the main question of the book of Ruth. The tragic tale of Elimelech is a preamble to a series of particular events which lead a weak and seemingly fogotten family back up to the position of kings. How is this accomplished? The answer is our heroine, Ruth, and hero, Boaz.

Ruth and Orpah, the widows of Naomi's sons, both insist upon going with her. This is the natural, socially expected loyalty of daughter-in-law to her new family. Especially in patriarchal social orders such as Moav and Judea, a marriage makes the wife a part of the husband's father's home. These two Moavite women performed their social responsibility by travelling with Naomi. However, when she beseeches them to return to their fathers' homes, Ruth and Orpah are freed from this responsibility. Orpah returns home. However, Ruth goes beyond the call of duty, refusing to abandon her poor, helpless and lonely mother-in-law. She declares her determination to stay with her until death. This is the first act of חסד, kindness beyond that which is required, and suddenly, Naomi is not so lonely, and not so helpless. Ruth has placed Naomi's physical and emotional well-being above the tempting comforts of her old Moavite home.

However, it does not stop there. As pointed out by others, Naomi must have been familiar with the laws of לקט, שחכה, פאה, and מעשר עני. As the wife of one of Israel's wealthiest, she probably witnessed the poor avail themselves of these in her husband's fields many times. However, precisely because of her wealthy past and subsequent shameful poverty, she is embarrassed, and does not even suggest that she and Ruth could find sustenance in the "Poor Laws" of the Torah. And so, Ruth takes the initiative in an unfamiliar social order and religious milieu, learning of these laws. She tells Naomi that she will bear the burden of shame; after all, what shame is there in a lowly convert-widow collecting forgotten gleanings in the fields of the wealthy? This is a second point where the megilah goes out of its way to point out the חסד Ruth continues to perform for her mother-in-law.

And yet again. Naomi, encouraged by Boaz's interest in Ruth, suggests that Ruth literally throw herself at his feet, and all but demand marriage. Ruth, a beautiful, young woman, would surely have been found an attractive wife for many of the young men of Beit Lechem, and would probably have wanted such a marriage herself. However, her next act of חסד was to follow Naomi's suggestion. She gives her life, dignity, and finally, her love, in her devotion to her mother-in-law. Boaz himself is amazed by the loyalty and expressions of kindness Ruth demonstrates towards Naomi, and agrees to marry her.

Boaz, the distant relative of Elimelech, furthers the mission of חסד which will ultimately redeem Elimelech's sins. Although the parallels between the mitzvah of yibum and what Boaz does are clear, it is equally obvious that Boaz is not actually doing yibum. He is not the brother of the dead husband of Ruth. He is a kinsman, and the book of Ruth makes it clear that this is not yibum by stating, "Boaz took Ruth to be his wife." (4:13) This is not the order of things in true yibum, where there is no separate acquisition of the wife other than beginning to live together. Here, Boaz did normal kiddushin. Legally, he had no requirement to marry this poor convert. Doing so, with the precise hopes to raise a family for the name of Ruth's dead husband, is a clear act of חסד, kindness beyond the requirements of law. In fact, his name, Boaz, is seen by some as a contraction of "בא עז" -- one who acts with valiance, for going above and beyond the call of duty. His word choice, "אנכי אגאל", can be taken to not only mean redeeming Elimelech's property, and marrying Ruth, but in the larger context, the redemption of Elimelech's sinful lack of חסד.

We have observed a thematic parallel structure in the book. We have, in the preamble, a lack of חסד, and its destructive results. This is symbolized by the names מכלון and כליון, of Elimelech's sons. Meaning emptiness and destruction, they are the natural "children" of the actions of Elimelech. Parallel to this, and yet in contradistinction, we have the kind acts of Ruth and Boaz, which bear, quite literally, the future royal line as their children.

The threads of kindness and compassion demonstrated time and again by Ruth and Boaz, culminating in their marriage, were sufficient to reverse the damage done by Elimelech's unwillingness to go beyond the law. A family once great, now low and trampled, is given a new chance, and produces the greatest family of Israel, that of Kind David. The delineation of this lineage at the end of the book of Ruth serves as a focal point, directing the theme of kindness towards its result. If a lack of חסד can nearly cut a strong, honored family off of the vine of Israel, then the profusion of חסד by a young convert girl and an old man can renew the spirit and honor of that family. The least noble of beginnings, when watered with the spirit of going beyond the call of duty for one another, can produce the nobility of the Davidic line.

The חסד theme of the book of Ruth justifies its use on the holiday of Shavuot. This spirit of ערבות, mutual responsibility, is noted at the foot of Mt Sinai just before the giving of the Torah. "ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר," and חז"ל state, "כאיש אחד בלב אחד," that Israel was completely at one. Each Jew felt responsible and liable for the benefit of the others. It is in this spirit that we accept, each day, the Torah upon ourselves anew, as a nation committed to one another. In Orot Hakodesh (חלק ג' עמ' שכד), Rav Kook makes the point that the sin of the Second Temple era was that the people did not feel this way; they demonstrated שנאת חינם. The correction of this sin is אהבת חינם, as demonstrated by Ruth and Boaz. Through the application of mutual responsibility and חסד, may we merit the redemption soon.