By Rabbi Elie Mischel
Though the Book of Ruth is a personal story describing tragic and heroic individuals, it is a personal story with national implications. The extraordinary kindness that Ruth, Boaz and Naomi show to one another leads to the union of Ruth and Boaz and, ultimately, to the birth of their great-grandson: King David.
We can better appreciate the significance of this story by placing it in its proper context. The stories described in the Book of Ruth take place at the same time as the events of the Book of Judges – a dark and difficult era for the people of Israel. After the death of Joshua, the tribes of Israel each operated independently of one another. Lacking unity, the tribes were weak and vulnerable to attack from neighboring countries and plundering tribes. At the same time, without consistently strong leadership, the Israelites frequently turned away from God and worshiped the pagan gods of surrounding nations. The Book of Judges can be described as a painful cycle: the people become complacent and turn away from God; God sends foreign enemies to subjugate the people; the people cry out and God sends a savior to redeem them; finally, saved from their enemies, the people become complacent and the cycle is repeated once again.
Like the entire era of the Book of Judges, the story of Ruth is filled with disappointments. What, then, is the message for us?
After selflessly following her mother-in-law to Judea, Ruth is rewarded with a life of poverty and no marriage prospects. When she and her mother-in-law return to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem, the people stare at Naomi, widowed and aged, and say “Is this broken woman really Naomi?” Living on the edge of town with no means of support, Naomi calls herself “Mara,” “the bitter one” – and who can blame her?
Ruth amazingly stumbles onto Boaz’s farm, and he is kind to her; you can almost hear the wedding bells! But once again, Ruth is disappointed. The harvest season ends and nothing happens. Boaz fails to act.
In a bold move, Naomi instructs Ruth to sneak into the threshing floor where Boaz is asleep. And yet, instead of a romantic scene, Boaz essentially tells Ruth: “There may be another redeemer instead of me. Wait, and let’s see what happens.” This other relative is given the opportunity to marry Ruth, but he turns it down – yet another moment of rejection and disappointment! It is only then, at the very end of the book, that we finally reach the moment we’ve been waiting for. Boaz steps up to the plate and says “I will redeem her!” And from this union, the Messiah is born.
This, it seems, is God’s playbook for redemption. Like the story of Ruth and like the entire era of the Book of Judges, the path to redemption is destined to be filled with disappointments. And yet, in the very midst of the darkness of that time, the love and kindness of a handful of people brought a powerful light to the world and planted the seeds of Israel’s future redemption!
The lesson of the Book of Ruth is particularly important for our generation. In many ways, the modern State of Israel is re-experiencing the era of the Book of Judges. Modern Israel is divided into “tribes” – religious and secular, Jews of Middle Eastern origin and Jews from Europe, Jews who believe the State of Israel is the harbinger of redemption and Jews who reject its religious significance altogether. At the same time, dangerous enemies like Iran and its terror proxies threaten Israel from without, while Palestinian terrorists murder as many Jews as they can within Israel. From this perspective, we are living through an era of great pain and national disappointment.
But the Book of Ruth teaches us that it is precisely during times like this that the seeds of redemption are sown. Perhaps, at this very moment of civil strife and external threats, the story of the final redeemer is being set in motion – right under our noses!
Ruth reminds us that the people of Israel must never give up hope, for God will not forsake His people. Take strength, for the redemption will come!