Monday, May 10, 2010

Four Ruths

Getting really close to the culmination of Sefirah and still counting, I’m glad to say. Hope the same is true for you…

This week I’m delivering a second shiur on Ruth, and as I prepare it I keep mulling the way that we see ourselves, perhaps our best selves, perhaps our wished-for selves, in this heroine. Here are four diverse examples:

Boaz, a person of wealth and generosity, says of Ruth (3:11) כי יודע כל שער עמי כי אשת חיל את – which may be translated, “Everyone knows that you are a woman of generosity.” [For more on translations of chayil, listen to the audio of the shiur I expect to teach tomorrow night, “Ruth as the Eishet Chayil.” Link to appear here when it is available, Gd-willing.]

John Keats was victim of a life of pain and loneliness, and in his Ode to a Nightingale he described those same traits in our heroine: “The sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home she stood in tears amid the alien corn.”

Juan Valera, who adores the greatness of a pure heart, writes in Pepita Jimenez, “I bestowed on them the sweet humility and the devotion of Ruth.”

And Richard Beer-Hofmann, in his Der Junge David (this translation comes from Liptzin’s “Beer-Hofmann’s image of Ruth,” which appeared in Jewish Bible Quarterly 19:4, Summer ‘91), sees Ruth offering advice to her great-grandson, King David. The words he puts in her mouth reflect his own views on Death:
Your end, like the end of all of us, is ultimately to become dung of the earth.
Perhaps a legend, a song, a melody, remembered for a while and wafted away before long.
And yet, like Gd’s stars circling in their assigned orbits above us, you - David - must complete your course here below, carrying on your assigned destiny.

I don’t know that any of these observers overreach; all of their visions are borne out in the woman at the center of the megilah we read on Shavuot. I’m just fascinated by their identification with a person whose moment on the biblical stage is brief, whose lines are terse, and whose role is so veiled in hints and mystery.


  1. The idea that we see in Ruth what we want to see in ourselves is fascinating, and I think has a lot of substance to it. Perhaps that's the same way we view all of our Biblical characters, heros or not.

    (Midrash picks up on this flexibility and encourages it, I think, precisely because the Torah is such a tool for learning and growth.)

    If we know that we can learn about ourselves based off of our perceptions of Ruth & co., perhaps we will do so, and really allow ourselves to grow from every new encounter with a text.

    Thank you for the food for thought on this upcoming chag!

  2. Hello Hannah,
    Thanks for commenting! (And not just because this was a commentless post until now...)

    I think it is the way we view Biblical characters in general, but Ruth has a romantic appeal to her that really helps us embrace her.

  3. I arrived in Israel last week for three months of Arabic study, and found myself thinking of both the Meraglim and of Ruth. How had she felt when she saw this beautiful country? What had she understood of the people jabbering around her?

    As such, I was wondering.... do you tend to see Ruth and Boaz as a matched pair? Meaning, if you see Ruth as young, is Boaz also young?

    Because I realized that I do, and that realization struck me as odd.

  4. Hi Hannah,

    Interesting. I'm biased by the midrashim I learned as a child, as well as the evidence from the book itself that Boaz was a man of somewhat advanced age, so I've always seen him as old. As for Ruth, I instinctively see her as a sun/work-roughened woman on the younger side of middle age, again based on the book itself. Comes from being text-oriented, I suppose.