By Rabbi Tuly Weisz
The books of the Writings were written through divine inspiration, without direct communication from God. Since these works were not written through direct communication with God, there was some uncertainty as to which books should and should not be included in the Bible. As such, Writings was the last section of the Hebrew Bible to be canonized. It was only formally included in Hebrew Scripture in the second century CE, based on the discussions, debates and decisions of a group of sages known as the Men of the Great Assembly.
In one such discussion, Rabbi Zeira asks why the Book of Ruth was included in the canon of Hebrew Scriptures if it does not teach us any new laws: Rabbi Zeira says, “This scroll does not have anything in it concerned with impurity or purity nor what is forbidden and what is permitted. So why is it written? To teach us the greatness of the reward for acts of lovingkindness.”
According to this sage, the Book of Ruth was included in the biblical canon because of its focus on loving-kindness. Kindness is a point of pride amongst the Jewish people, the hallmark of Abraham and something that every Jew must aspire to. In fact, Maimonides writes that loving-kindness is something that is built into the genetic makeup of a Jew, and if a Jew displays a lack of kindness, or cruelty, his lineage should be called into question:
“Anyone who is cruel and does not exhibit compassion, we should [suspect him and attempt to] ascertain his lineage.” (Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 10:2)
Kindness is the main theme not only of the Book of Ruth, but, according to one of the greatest sages in early Jewish history, the entire Bible! Rabbi Akiva, the universally recognized leader of his generation who died in approximately 135 CE, taught that the entire Bible could be summed up with one phrase:
“Love your fellow as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)
On the flipside, the antithesis of kindness is repugnant to the Bible, so much so that Moab was prohibited entry into the Jewish People for their national miserliness. What is surprising about the Book of Ruth is that the lesson of kindness is taught from a most unlikely source: Ruth the Moabite!
After the family of Elimelech settles in Moab, Mahlon, Elimelech’s son, marries Ruth. Though she is a daughter of the cruel nation of Moab, known for their miserliness and sexual misconduct, Ruth rejects the cruelty of her people. After her Judean husband, brother-in-law and father-in-law all die, and her mother-in-law Naomi is left with nothing, Ruth and her sister-in-law Orpah offer to accompany Naomi back to Judah, a wonderful gesture.
Recognizing that she had nothing to offer her daughters-in-law and that they would lead much easier lives in Moab, Naomi demurs and tells the women to return to their families. Orpah realizes that Naomi is right, kisses her mother-in-law on the cheek and stays in Moab, the clearly more logical decision. Ruth, on the other hand, for reasons that are not made explicit in the text, surprises the reader with her stubborn attachment to Naomi:
“They broke into weeping again, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law farewell. But Ruth clung to her” (Ruth 1:14).
The verse says that Ruth “clung” to her mother-in-law, using the Hebrew words davka bah. This Hebrew verb connotes an all encompassing connection, such as in Genesis 2:24 where the verse says that “a man clings to his wife.” Just as in a marriage a husband and wife are so committed to one another that they put the needs of their spouse before their own, Ruth places Naomi first, even at the expense of her own self-interest. She expresses her steadfast devotion to her mother-in-law with one of the most beautiful statements of faith and allegiance in the entire Bible:
“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may Hashem do to me if anything but death separates me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
From these first words uttered by Ruth, we see that although she is a descendant of Lot, Ruth displays more affinity to Abraham, the paradigm of kindess, who himself left his family and homeland behind in order to travel to the Promised Land. Unlike Lot who chose wealth and comfort over morals and values, Ruth turns her back on a life of comfort and instead chooses something greater: a chance to join the Jewish people and to follow the Jewish God.
To cast her lot with the Jewish people Ruth gave up everything familiar to her and was often treated as an outsider. But she recognized that there is something unique about the Jewish people, and she chooses kindness and chosenness over comfort.