Against the Grain


What can we learn from a woman’s journey to becoming Jewish, and why on Shavuot, when the Jewish people received the Torah?

Says Rabbi Ze’ira, “The Book of Ruth “tells us nothing about what is pure or impure or what we should or should not do. Why was it written? To teach us how great is the reward of those who do acts of kindness and are generous to the poor.”

Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, is also known as Chag HaKatsir, the Festival of Ingathering, and Chag HaBikkurim, the Festival of First Fruits, when farmers streamed to Jerusalem to bring offerings to the Temple. The Ruth story, read on the day, is likewise set against a harvest background. It is a jewel of a pastoral idyll; after suffering and reversals of fortune, an aristocratic landowner marries a beautiful, impoverished stranger, establishing a lineage that will include King David and the Messiah.

Most of the characters behave and talk to one another with utmost respect and refinement; they “give to” and cherish the other. The property owner greets his workers with blessings; when his heart is merry with the food and drink of an abundant harvest, he initiates the Grace after Meals.

The reality is not as ideal. The Ruth narrative takes place in a tribal society during a period when the social fabric is so corrupt that even judges are affected. During a famine, one of the country’s leaders, an uncharitable man named Elimelech of the tribe of Judah, with his wife and two sons, flees to Moab, a nation noted for its lack of kindness when it refused bread and water to the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt.

Elimelech’s small family comprised three males and one female. His boys marry Orpah and Ruth, the daughters of the king of Moab.

In Moab a blight attacks Elimelech’s crops; his wealth dwindles until finally he dies. Only when his sons also pass away is Naomi free to return to the Land of Israel, which she never wished to leave.

Until this point, Ruth and Orpah have demonstrated a natural devotion to their mother-in-law. But when Orpah “turns her neck” away, Ruth comes out with her famed declaration, possibly the most romantic in world literature, addressed not to a male but to an impoverished mother-in-law: “Where you go I will go and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God, mine.”

The Hebrew word “chesed,” if that is Ruth’s motivation, contains a greater depth of emotion than “kindness,” its usual translation. “Chesed” is a form of loyalty so strong that it defies conventional taboos and death itself. If this princess, herself a recent widow, is prepared to sacrifice status, family ties and religion out of altruism, then this outpouring goes beyond kindness. This is the language of someone who loves so passionately that she gives not a thought to what she has to lose. It is what she must do. In her lost love, in his mother, she feels the echo of an attraction to something greater.

Like Moab, the ordinary Israelites do not welcome back these two unfortunates with Jewish chesed. Wary of the rich woman who betrayed Judah in its time of need, and suspicious of her Moabite companion, even Boaz, their kinsman, does not greet them with food or help retrieve Elimelech’s estate. Seeing Naomi’s fall from fortune, the women ask, “Is this Naomi who put shining gold to shame with her beauty?” Formerly, she traveled in her own carriage; now she was barefoot. Formerly, she was clothed in fine wool; now she was in rags, says Yalkut Shimoni.

With no help forthcoming, Ruth goes into the fields and gleans to spare the older woman humiliation.

The agricultural laws of Torah provide redress for unintended cruelty by landowners: “When you reap your harvest in your field and you forget a sheaf … you shall not go back to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, so that God should bless the work of your hands.”

Once the gleanings have left the landowner’s proprietorship, the blessings or sparks in them attach to the entire society. Ibn Ezra says the merit of one who leaves gleanings for the poor is like that of a donor to the rebuilding of the Temple; the gleaners in turn give the wealthy and their society that opportunity.

Ruth, by nature a gleaner, is implicitly imagined as being gleaned and garnered. She is a blade of grain or a fruit that has become unstuck from the collectivity of Moab. Why was it necessary for David to come from Moab? Says Rabbi Isaac Luria: “It was certainly the divine will to extract the precious from the worthless, the good from the source of corruption, since in this way the external obstructions permit them to emerge from the depths of the abyss.”

Sometimes it is precisely from the margins that redemption comes. 

Freema Gottlieb is a writer and lecturer. Her book, “The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” is available as a Kindle edition on Her talks on the weekly Torah reading may be found on YouTube.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Thursday — Shavuot: Light candles: 8 p.m.

Torah reading, first day Shavuot: Exodus 19:1 – 20:23,
   Numbers 28:26 – 28:31

Haftarah, first day Shavuot: Ezekiel 1:1-28; 3:12

Torah reading, second day Shavuot: Deuteronomy
   15:19 – 16:17, Numbers 28:26 – 28:31

Haftarah, second day Shavuot: Habakkuk 3:1-19

Book of Ruth: Shavuot/Shabbat ends: 9:01 p.m.