Lessons From the Book of Ruth
Sharing our possessions is not a disposition that comes naturally. Whatever else parents do, they need to referee often, fairly and good-naturedly, a task usually spared the grandparents. As the unkind quip goes: the reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they share a common enemy.
It is precisely this innate aversion to deny ourselves that prompts the Torah to legislate this week a series of charitable acts that are quite unnatural, slightly utopian and utterly unenforceable. The setting is an agricultural society, but the intent is universal: to alleviate the plight of the hungry. At harvest time the Torah enjoins us to share the land’s bounty with the poor and the stranger in our midst. We should not cut the edges of our fields or pick our vineyards bare, and the gleanings of both are to be left lying where they fall. In all, four separate injunctions inspired by compassion not to take wholly for ourselves what is rightfully ours, what indeed we have painstakingly labored to produce by the sweat of our brows (Leviticus 19:9-10). The Mishnah specifies that while there is no upward limit to the mitzvah of pe’ah (the unharvested edge), there is a floor: no less than one-sixtieth of the crop may be given (M Pe’ah 1:1-2).
The nobility of the legislation speaks for itself. At the peak of our possessiveness, we are asked for a bit of self-transcendence. And as we settle for a little less, the beneficiaries of our largess are spared the loss of their dignity and anonymity. They are not forced to beg outright. The arrangement permits them to assuage their need demurely. The well-to-do have a responsibility to assist the vulnerable. No society can long endure if the gap between rich and poor runs amok. To address that injustice, the Torah institutionalizes the exercise of good deeds. Of the select laws to be taught to a prospective convert to Judaism, Maimonides, in his incomparable code of Jewish law, singles out these agrarian stipulations (hilkhot issure bi’ah 14:2). The choice is consistent with his conception of what it takes to be a Jew: relating to others considerately. Cruelty or indifference do violence to the value system of Judaism (hilkhot matanot aniyim 10:2).
The passage ends resoundingly with, “I the Lord am your God” ( 19:10 ). Leviticus offers no justification for such lofty behavior, as if none would be sufficient to inspire it. The concluding declaration intimates that we ought to diminish our gain solely because God demands it of us. The ultimate ground for morality is neither reason nor fear but simply God’s will. In contrast, Deuteronomy, with its greater humanistic tendency, tries to anchor its amplification of these same charitable measures in the experience of Egyptian slavery. To be sure, God is the source of the commandments but we are primed to perform them because of the deprivation endured by our ancestors in Egypt. Suffering has endowed us with a capacity to identify with the fate of the widow, the orphan and the stranger (Deut. 24:19-22). Our humanity springs from a keen awareness of what it means to be inhuman.
The Book of Ruth, the second of the Tanakh’s five scrolls to be read on Shavu’ot, turns on at least one of these mandated forms of charity. The time of year is early spring, “the beginning of the barley harvest ” (Ruth 1:22 ). Both Ruth and Naomi, her mother-in-law, have returned to Israel from Moab widowed and forlorn. To provide some food for their bare table, Ruth announces: “I would like to go to the fields and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone who may show me kindness” (2:2). The narrative posits that the practice of leaving the gleanings for the poor was part of the social fabric of ancient Israel. “As luck would have it.” (2:3), she alights on the fields of Boaz, a relative of her deceased father-in-law, who is apprised of the selfless devotion that Ruth has shown to Naomi in abandoning her native land of Moab and attaching herself to Naomi’s people and God. This unalloyed goodness inspires Boaz not only to shower her with grain, but to also take her as his wife in accordance with the regulations of a levirate marriage. He further buys back all the property once owned by Naomi’s late husband and two sons and names the son born to him and Ruth after her former husband to perpetuate his name. The ultimate reward of these decent people is that their child became the grandfather of none other than King David.
To read the heartwarming story of Ruth on Shavu’ot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, projects a dramatic instance of revelation in action. At least in the cases of a childless widow and gleanings for the poor, its laws defined local practice. Beyond that, the gentle lesson of Ruth is that decency can soften emptiness with purpose and death with fertility. By aiding others, we improve the quality of their lives and ours. To be holy means to do with less for ourselves so that those in need might have a bit more. As in the other scrolls in Scripture, God’s presence in Ruth recedes into the background. Good people are God’s agents, who by doing what does not come naturally to most of us turn the divine word into human reality.
The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld. This is a reprint of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary from 5760.