The Story of Ruth (Part One): The Problem with Kindness

The story of Ruth is one of the best-known Biblical stories. A convert girl gives up everything to join the Jewish people and ends up mothering royalty. Its links to Shavuot are multiple: as we received the Torah, so does she; the main events take place between Pesach and Shavuot; and the day of Shavuot is the birthday and death day of King David, whose birth is announced in the final verse of the book.

But there is perhaps an even deeper connection to Shavuot, and that is about the nature of giving and taking.[1] After all, Shavuot is about the greatest gift ever given – the Torah.[2] The Book of Ruth is all about the nature of giving.

This Megillah does not contain [laws of] impurity or purity, or prohibitions or permits, so why was it written? To teach you how good is the reward for those who do kindness” (Ruth Rabbah 2:14)

One might expect that there would be little that could be more universally appreciated than giving. Surely every human being values acts of kindness? But it turns out that this is not in fact the case. The book opens with the scenes of famine in Bethlehem and with the nobility of the town fleeing to Moav.[3] This itself is perplexing. Firstly, Moav is very close to Bethlehem. A severe famine in one is likely to indicate a famine in the other. Secondly, the people least likely to starve in a famine are the nobility with their vast storages of surplus grain. Why then would the wealthy leave? And why go to Moav? The unfortunate and painful answer is that in years of famine there are numerous poor people desperately knocking on the doors of the wealthy. In Bethlehem they could not ignore the cries and pleas of the poor. But there was one place where they could be assured that there would be few philanthropic demands placed upon them, and that place was Moav.[4]

Moav is characterized in Torah by their refusal to provide bread and water to the wandering Israelites.[5] Indeed Moav is the descendent of Abrahamic era Sodom[6] whose very motto was ‘what is mine is mine’ – not yours.[7] Whenever the Talmud wants to describe the attributes of a person who refuses to give to others even when they suffer no loss themselves, it refers to it as ‘the characteristic of Sedom’.[8] For Sedom, and then for Moav, being anti-charity and anti-giving is ideological.

What is it that could possibly prompt individuals to violate the innate empathetic instinct?

To understand this, we must go back to the father of Maov, the survivor of the destruction of Sedom – Abraham’s nephew Lot. 

One of unresolved issues of Torah is Lot’s decision to abandon his uncle. At first it makes little sense. Abraham had taken his nephew in as an orphan. He had treated him as his own child, and given him absolutely everything. Lot was the heir apparent of Abraham’s wealth and of his spiritual movement. Yet he turns his back on all of this and joins Abraham’s nemesis – Sedom. Why?

One compelling suggestion[9] is that it was, paradoxically, Abrahams life of chessed – of lovingkindness – that actually drove Lot away. Lot had spent his entire life as a recipient of Abraham’s constant giving. But all that came at a price. It meant that he was a nobody. All that he was and all that he had could never feel like it was his own.

Also Lot, who went with Abram, had flocks, cattle and tents’

[the word ‘also’] teaches us that all of Lot’s blessings in acquisitions and possessions was not due to his own efforts. Rather it was because he had travelled with Abraham and through [Abraham’s] blessing he also had been blessed. (Abarbanel,[10] commentary to Bereishis 13:5)

Lot had indeed received constant kindness, but he felt that he had paid a price for that kindness in loss of dignity.

It is chessed’ (Vayikra 20:17)[11]

This means: ‘it is shameful. The word for something shameful in Aramaic is chassuda (Rashi)

It was this sense of being robbed and crushed by the constant flow of kindness, that made him seek out the one civilization that understood that to be truly independent, people had to be free from any kindness of anyone anywhere. That culture was Sedom, and later Moav. 

Lot and Sedom are terribly misguided. But they do raise a profound question. How is it possible to live in a world of kindness without the giver just gaining control and dignity at the expense of the recipient who loses both? This question lurks at the depths of human psychology on many levels. It is a part of the frustration and resentment many teens feel towards their parents whose constant love and kindness makes them feel indebted and dependent just as they seek to find their own independence. 

Perhaps the deepest place it manifests is in the human instinct for sin. Ultimately, we are the perpetual recipients of God’s loving-kindness. Creation is the ultimate imbalance in relationship. How can we feel the dignity of independence when our lives our perpetually dependent upon our Creator. Somewhere deep in the subconscious lies a desire for sin simply to feel an assertion of selfhood and that very independence. Adam only uses the Hebrew word anochi – I am – after he has sinned.[12]

The same is true for the ‘beloved gift’ that God gave: Torah. It was the most incredible gift possible. But many of the recipients simply felt crushed by it.

 “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of [lit. underneath] the mountain.” (Shemos 19:17).

This teaches that the Holy One (Blessed be He) suspended the mountain over them, like a barrel and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. (Shabbos 88a)

So, the gnawing challenge of Lot threatens to undermine the fabric of society, the man-God relationship, and the very possibility of giving and receiving Torah. It is the challenge to everything we celebrate on Shavuot, and it needed a definitive answer.

And that answer would have to come from the very source of the question; from the family of Lot…

The angels urged Lot on, saying, “Up, take your wife and your two remaining daughters who are to be found…” (Bereishis 19:15)

This refers to the two great ‘findings’ – Ruth the Moabite and Na’ama the Amonite

I found David my servant’ (Tehilim 89:21)

Where did I ‘find’ him? I found him in Sedom.

Medrash Bereishis Rabbah 41:4

The story opens with the nobles of Israel being seduced by the anti-kindness ideology of neighbouring Moav. But the first chapter continues with the introduction of the very person who will answer that challenge, bring healing to Bethlehem, and ultimately give birth to the seed of Mashiach.

The anticipation builds strongly as the first chapter comes to a close:

Naomi returned [to Bethlehem], and with her came Ruth the Moabite, her daughter in law, who returned from the fields of Moab (Ruth 1:22)

It is one thing to describe Naomi as ‘returning’. She used to live in Bethlehem and is now coming home. But in what sense can Ruth be described as returning? When has she ever been here?

The Midrash cited above is one of the sources the Rabbis use to tell us the answer. She is the daughter of Lot who left Abraham, burned by a question and challenging the whole premise of kindness and of Torah. For centuries we have been waiting for Lot’s children to return. Finally, one has. There is power to this moment, and it builds anticipation as to what will come next.

Ruth’s answer will transform the Jewish people. It will set the scene for the malchus (kingship)– the unification and integration - of the nation. It will pave the way for Mashiach.

That is where, God willing, we hope to pick up next week.

 

 

[1] The ideas herein are strongly based on the approach of Rabbi M. Miller in his commentary on the Book of Ruth, ‘Rising Moon’ and in turn go back to his teacher Rabbi M. Weinberg.

[2] See Avos 3:14 

[3] As regards their nobility, see Tanhuma, Behar 8. As regards all such nobles leaving down, see Ruth 1:1 and the device of anonymity; compare Shemos ch.2 when chazal learn that the anonymous device implies all married men and women had separated, not just the particular couple being referred to. 

[4] There are actually different views as to how severe the famine was and how much choice they had. See for instance Rambam, Laws of Kings 5:9

[5] Devorim 23:4

[6] Bereishis 19:37

[7] Avos 5:10

[8] See eg. Bava Kama 20a-b, Bava Basra 12b

[9] See Rabbi Miller, ‘Rising Moon’ pp.63-100

[10] Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehuda Abarbanel, 1437-1508, Medieval philosopher and commentator.

[11] The context is incest. Like the other meaning of chessed, loving-kindness, it involves expansion beyond one’s own boundary. In this case the expansion is disrespectful of other, and robs them. But it is possible for any act of chessed to be a subtle form of control. Even the best motivated kind acts risk leaving the recipient feeling shame: 

One who eats from their friend’s food is embarrassed to look at them’ (Yerushalmi, Orla 6a).

[12] Bereishis 3:10

 

- May 14th 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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