The Book of Ruth: A Great Story and a Profound Lesson
by Yossi Prager
The Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, is my favorite book of the Bible. It is a great story, wonderfully told – concise, fast-paced, emotionally stirring. Without masking the flaws in human nature, the plot progresses though heroic acts of chessed, loving kindness. Ruth sacrifices to care for her mother-in-law, Naomi, who in turn selflessly seeks a re-marriage opportunity for Ruth. Ruth and Boaz show loving kindness to each other, leading to a marriage that, in a few generations, produces David, king of Israel.
In many ways, Ruth is a universal story of love and its rewards; at the same time it is a distinctively Jewish tale because the chessed described is rooted in Jewish law and reflects the Torah’s profound wisdom. In a previous blog post, I noted that Thomas Jefferson made a fundamental mistake when he criticized the Talmud for devoting only one book to morality (Pirkei Avot). In fact, the Talmud is suffused with morality, but not as books of ethics independent of law. To the contrary, Jewish ethics is embedded within law. While the Book of Ruth contains multiple examples, I want to illustrate this point through a set of laws that resonate for me as a philanthropic professional.
Boaz and Ruth meet and begin to develop their relationship in Boaz’s field, when Ruth comes to gather the agricultural gifts set aside for the poor. Today, we think of tzedakah as cash gifts. In the Torah text, tzedakah in cash is used for interest-free loans (Shmot 22:24, Devarim 15:8). Direct gifts to the poor are made through laws that regulate the reaping of produce from the fields. The laws at work in the Book of Ruth are Leket, Shikhecha and Pe’ah. Here’s a description of the three laws excerpted from the Encyclopedia of Judaism on answers.com:
a) Leket (“gleaning”). If the reapers drop one or two wheat stalks, they may not retrieve them, but must leave them for the poor. Three or more stalks may be retrieved by the reapers.
b) Shikhehah (“forgotten”). If, when bringing the harvest to the storage area, the workers leave a quantity in the field, they may not go back to gather it (Deut. 24:19).
c) Pe’ah (“corner”). When harvesting his field, the farmer is required to leave one corner unharvested for the poor. The rabbis imposed a minimum of 1/60 of the crop to be left as Pe’ah.
As Boaz’s workers reap his field, the poor in the city travel behind the workers, snatching up fallen stalks and seeking forgotten sheaves. Presumably, other workers were reaping the corner of the field that Boaz set aside for the poor. We get the impression from the book that the needy received occasional rebuke from the workers, perhaps because the two groups became entangled. Boaz orders his workers to leave Ruth alone and even to intentionally drop stalks for her to pick up. He also praises and encourages Ruth, and feeds her lunch. And the romance begins.
Let’s put aside the story for a moment and reflect on the social and psychological differences between this system of agricultural gifts and the cash gifts we associate with tzedakah today. Recipients of cash gifts are passive, and if the situation continues long enough, could grow psychologically dependent on being supported by others. This could not only extend the cycle of poverty but undermine recipients’ long-term confidence in their ability to take care of themselves, a devastating ego blow.
By contrast, the Torah puts the needy to work: while they are not harvesting their own fields, they do gain the satisfaction of working for their bread and remaining part of the work force.
The requirement to leave a corner of the field for the poor to reap entirely by themselves is a truly exquisite law. Essentially, the poor get their own small plot of land, “owned” by them. They reap on their own and take home the fruits of their own labor, just like the wealthy owner of the whole field. Psychologically, working their “own field” must be a terrific encouragement to those in need.
So here are two takeaways:
- Jewish morality is embedded in Jewish law. Ruth is an extraordinary story, not only because of the interpersonal loving kindness among the main characters but also because of the Jewish legal structure that provides a healthy system for taking care of the needy in the community. Because the story of Ruth emerged from within the context of a value system structured by Jewish law, it is not only universal but distinctively Jewish.
- Because agriculture is no longer a common profession, the specific laws of agricultural gifts have little practical relevance today. However, they provide guidance and raise questions for us about how to structure poverty programs and what to look for in writing checks to charities. Maimonides’ famous Eight Levels of Charity famously puts at the top helping a person to find a job or build a business. From the Torah’s laws of agricultural gifts, we learn that even when we cannot offer up a job, we should find ways to promote industriousness, self-reliance and self-respect. Does your organization encourage these values in its programs? How about the organizations to which you write tzedakah checks? Something to think about over Shavuot, courtesy of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz.
I hope that you will have an opportunity to read the Book of Ruth sometime on Shavuot and allow it to touch your heart and engage your mind. If you want to add your thoughts about the book, please contribute in the comments section.
Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.