Ruth and Shoftim: Two Tales of One City

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May 2, 2021
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Ruth, Naomi and Boaz lived in Beit Lechem during the centuries-long era between Yehoshua’s death and Shaul’s ascendancy as king.1 Shemuel documented that period — including events that occurred in Beit Lechem — in the book of Shoftim. And yet, when Shemuel recorded the story of Ruth he chose not to include it with stories from the same time and place in Shoftim, but instead to create a separate book: Megillat Ruth.2 Why did he assign this story its own space?3 


Don Isaac Abarbanel4 suggested two problematic answers. First, Shoftim tells a national story, and Ruth tells a private story. This is difficult, though; some of the stories recorded in Shoftim are personal, and Ruth’s story establishes the lineage of the royal Davidic dynasty. 


Second, Shoftim was concluded before Shemuel recorded the story of Ruth. But this only pushes the question further — why did Shemuel fail to include Ruth’s story in Shoftim before completing the book? 


Reviewing three central messages of Megillat Ruth may help us understand why Shemuel isolated Ruth, Naomi and Boaz from their contemporaries, and to appreciate the value of this book.


1: Supporting King David


According to Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra,5 the goal of Megillat Ruth is to record the lineage of King David. Indeed, it has been argued that Shemuel wrote Megillat Ruth in an attempt to protect King David from challenges to his Moabite heritage.6 Lest people reject King David as a scion of inappropriate lineage, Megillat Ruth testifies to Ruth’s legitimacy as Boaz’s wife.


Taking the megillah’s support of King David in a more positive direction, Dr. Yael Ziegler contends that the book legitimizes King David’s monarchy by demonstrating that King David emerged from people of heroically selfless generosity. A king’s self-interest can lead to corruption and abuse; Tanach is littered with examples. Hashem envisioned a monarch who would be truly selfless, and Megillat Ruth demonstrated that David’s ancestors embodied this characteristic.7


2: Demonstrating Divine Reward


Rabbi Zeira taught, “This megillah does not contain impurity and purity, prohibition and permission, and it is written only to teach you the great reward for those who practice chesed.”8 There are halachic elements in the text, but Rabbi Zeira contended that the focus of the book is to demonstrate the Divine benevolent response to people who benefit others.


Megillat Ruth also portrays Divine reward for emunah. Our two heroines, Naomi and Ruth, are presented not only as paragons of chesed, but also as paragons of emunah in Hashem. Naomi proclaims that her suffering is a product of Divine justice. When Naomi learns that Ruth’s gleaning has led her to Boaz, Naomi blesses G-d “who has not abandoned His generosity to the living and the dead.” Ruth demonstrates her emunah right at the start of the story, with the declaration of loyalty to G-d that has served as the model for conversion for millennia. Boaz and Ruth are rewarded for this chesed, and Naomi and Ruth are rewarded for emunah as well.


3: Teaching Loyalty


The story begins with Elimelech’s wealthy family abandoning the Jews during a famine,9 continues with Machlon and Kilyon choosing to marry Moabites rather than Jews,10 and concludes with Ploni Almoni refusing to aid Ruth. The first two betrayals result in death; the name of the perpetrator of the third betrayal is entirely omitted, suggesting that his name has been cut off.11


On the other hand, the megillah describes a series of actions in which our heroes support those who rely on them. Hashem is loyal to “His nation” and ending the famine. Ruth is loyal to Naomi, remaining with her after Machlon’s death, accompanying her back to Israel, and gleaning to support both of them. Boaz is loyal to Ruth and Naomi, supporting them with grain, redeeming the name of Machlon and the family field, and marrying Ruth. Megillat Ruth offers a lesson in loyalty, as well as its rewards.


These three themes demonstrate why Ruth’s story cannot be included in the book of Shoftim. Shoftim depicts a depressing spiral, a rudderless nation forgetting its roots and becoming increasingly, unrelievedly, barbarically Canaanite over the centuries. The events that involve Beit Lechem are the creation of an apparently idolatrous house of worship led by a Levi from Beit Lechem, and the rape and murder of a concubine from Beit Lechem by Jews. To quote Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, “No book in Tanach expresses failure like the book of Shoftim.”12


In contrast, Ruth’s messages are aspirational. Here we find the selflessly generous roots of the Davidic dynasty in Beit Lechem. Here we learn about chesed and emunah, and their rewards. Here we see loyalty change lives, catalyze hope and enable blessing. Shoftim and Ruth may occur in the same period and place, but they depict dramatically different philosophical planets. The world of Shoftim is irredeemable; the world of Ruth is redemption itself.


As we read Megillat Ruth this year, may we absorb not only its specific messages, but also its broad promise that chesed, emunah in Hashem and loyalty to each other will bring about geulah.


Endnotes


1. For a more precise date, see Ruth Rabbah 1, Bava Batra 91a, Malbim to Ruth 1:1, and Prof. Feivel Meltzer, Daat Mikra Ruth pg. 16.


2. Bava Batra 14b, credits Shemuel with the authorship of both books, as well as parts of the book of Shemuel.


3. We may also ask why Shoftim is in the Prophets, while Ruth is in the Writings, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.


4. Introduction to the Book of Yehoshua.


5. Introduction to the Book of Ruth.


6. See Rabbi Yehoshua Bachrach, Imah shel Malchut pp. 11-12.


7. Dr. Yael Ziegler, Madua Nichtivah Megillah Zu. And see Shemot Rabbah 2:2-3 regarding the selection of Moshe and King David.


8. Ruth Rabbah 2:14, and see Daat Mikra Ruth pp. 4-11 for examples of how this theme emerges in the text.


9. See Ruth Rabbah 1:4, Bava Batra 91b. 


10. Malachi 2:11 brands intermarriage as betrayal; indeed, the punishment predicted in Malachi 2:12 befalls Machlon and Kilyon.


11. See Rashi to Ruth 4:1.


12. Bigdei Shesh, Introduction to Shoftim.

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Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by Barry and Marcia Levinson in honor of Rabbi Eliron & Devorah Levinson and their children, and Rabbi Aviyam & Rina Levinson and their children and by Tamar and Phil Gross for a refuah shleimah for Pinchas Eliyahu ben Rachel and by the Katzman Family of Great Neck wishing Shana Tova to Klal Yisrael