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The Book of Ruth

On the fiftieth day after Passover we celebrate the festival of Shavuot. Even though the Torah mentions the agricultural nature of Shavuot (as the concluding festival of the grain harvest) the ancient rabbis added a new meaning and celebrated it as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Traditionally, the book that is read on this holiday is the Book of Ruth which is one of the most beautiful books in the Bible. However, a careful reading of the book makes it an odd choice for a festival commemorating the giving of the Law because at its core is a story about breaking the law.

While the Torah is normally very welcoming of the stranger, for historical reasons, it instructs the Israelites to avoid any contact with the nations of Ammon and Moab. As the Book of Deuteronomy (23:4-4) says: "No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of their descendants even into the tenth generation shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord because they did not meet you with food and water after you left Egypt...". 

The Moabites were off-limits, yet the book of Ruth is named after a Moabite woman who was the great-grandmother of King David, from whose family will come the Messiah. Yes! The Messiah in our tradition is a descendant of a Moabite woman, a people the Torah abhors.  

The beauty of the Book of Ruth is that it presents us with situations in which the easy way is to follow the law but the right thing to do is to break it. Ruth, after losing her husband, was left with Naomi, her aging, bitter, poverty stricken mother-in-law. Considering all legal, logical and practical reasons, she should have stayed with her own family in Moab and start a new life. But instead, she chose to accompany her mother-in-law back to Ancient Israel, where she would endure a life of extreme poverty and the status of a detested foreigner. Ruth chose a way of loving kindness at the price of her self-interest. The Israelites in the story also acted kindly towards her rather than adhering to the biblical law quoted above. Contrary to the Torah’s instructions, they admitted her to “the congregation of the Lord”. She was permitted to glean for food in their fields as if she were a local resident. The field owner, Boaz, who hears how devoted and caring Ruth has been to Naomi, orders his workers to protect her and eventually marries her.  

The Talmud has a staggering principle saying that “to do God’s will you may violate a Torah commandment” (et la’asot ladonai heferu Toratecha), according to which it is permissible to break a Torah’s commandment in order to do what is right. It is not that the observance of the Law, the Torah, is of no great concern to the Jewish people – quite the contrary. It is the essence of Judaism. But on the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah, we are taught that the only way to live by the law is to know when to go beyond it.  

At the core of the Torah is God’s expectation of us to act compassionately and empathetically towards our fellow human beings. Any other behavior must be challenged even if it is written in the Torah.  

Rabbi Alon Levkovitz 

Fri, December 4 2020 18 Kislev 5781