By Rabbi Tuly Weisz
By declaring her allegiance to God and the Jewish people, Ruth became one of a small number of righteous non-Jews in the Bible who stand out for recognizing God. Jethro, for example, moved by what he heard about the Exodus from Egypt, went to meet up with Moses in the desert as the Israelites were camped by the mountain of God. After Moses recounts to his father-in-law all that God had done for them, Jethro rejoices and declares: “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods” (Exodus 18:11). Similarly, when Joshua sends two spies to scout out the Land of Israel before the Jews cross the Jordan and enter the land, they find shelter at the inn of Rahab. She, too, is impressed by everything that God has done for the Jewish people and asserts: “For Hashem your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below” (Joshua 2:11).
Though Ruth is not the first non-Jew in the Bible to recognize the Jewish God, none of the others have been discussed with as much detail or with so much attention to their words. She is, after all, the only one that has a whole book of the Bible dedicated to her story! Ruth is special, and her powerful words of commitment to Naomi are clearly meant to teach subsequent generations, Jews and non-Jews, what it means to cast your lot with the Jewish people.
What makes Ruth so special, and why does she have a whole book of the Bible written about her story?
It is Ruth’s outstanding acts of loving-kindness that make her unique, and ultimately make her worthy of being the forebear of the Davidic dynasty. Time and again she continues to display this trait of selflessness and kindness throughout the entire book of Ruth.
After committing herself to her mother-in-law and journeying with her, Ruth enters Israel. This must have been very difficult for her as an outsider, from Moab no less! Indeed, we see that despite her allegiance to God and the Jewish people, many are reluctant to embrace her. This is reflected in the fact that throughout all four chapters of the book she is repeatedly referred to as a Moabite, despite her conversion. Yet Ruth only continues to impress us with her unusual spirit.
When they arrive in Bethlehem, Ruth realizes that the only way they would survive is if she would line up with the other paupers for charity handouts in the fields of the wealthy landowners. Judean society included many safety net programs to care for the poor and needy, as outlined in the Bible (Leviticus 19:9-10).
Nevertheless, it is never easy for the recipients of charity to swallow their pride and receive a handout. Perhaps the shame is too great for Naomi, which is why she doesn’t accompany Ruth to the fields. Yet, Ruth volunteers to relinquish her dignity and gathers crops in the field to obtain food for herself and her mother-in-law.
Her selfless and unwavering commitment to Naomi continues when Ruth obediently follows her mother-in-law’s unusual instructions to go down to Boaz on the threshing floor in the middle of the night (Ruth 3:2-4). Naomi tells Ruth to lie at Boaz’s feet, putting her Moabite daughter-in-law in an uncomfortable position. Ruth has demonstrated that she distanced herself from immoral Moabite behavior by being kind and dedicating herself to Naomi, and now Naomi was asking her to do something that could be perceived as sexually immoral – exactly the type of behavior that gave Moabite women their bad reputation. Yet Rut doesn’t hesitate and obeys Naomi.
Finally, at the end of the story, after Ruth’s dreams have come true and she finally finds security through marriage and a child, she immediately gives the child to Naomi to raise (Ruth 4:16-17).
By giving up her maternal rights, the selfless heroine once again gives of herself for the sake of her mother-in-law. In each of the four chapters of the book, Ruth repeatedly sacrifices her own personal interests through her acts of generosity and kindness. From these repeated examples of kindness we see that Ruth overcomes her cruel national heritage and Moabite destiny, attaching herself instead to the people of Israel.
Yet despite her allegiance to Naomi and to God, and the many acts of kindness she displays throughout the story, many still see her as a Moabite. When a man who is a closer relative than Boaz, referred to as Ploni Almoni (the “anonymous” one), is given a chance to redeem Elimelech’s property, he readily agrees. But when he discovers that he would also have to marry Ruth, he changes his mind (Ruth 4:6). This is, no doubt, a result of her Moabite origins, for Moabites were repugnant to the Jewish people and the Bible forbids them from marrying into the Jewish nation (Deuteronomy 23:4).
However, the Sages teach that this prohibition applies only to Moabite men, and Moabite women who convert are, in fact, permitted to marry Jewish men. It is Boaz, someone who himself displays great kindness, who is able to see past her birthplace to the sterling character within. The union of these two personalities is the perfect formula from which the Davidic dynasty, and ultimately the Messiah, will arise.
Rabbi Zeira taught that the Book of Ruth was included in the Bible in order to teach the great reward for doing acts of kindness. Indeed, Ruth receives a great reward for her kindness, and finds that the benefits of her decision to leave everything behind and stick with Naomi far outweigh any of the challenges and discomforts that she experiences along the way.