Ruth, Sodom and the Mechanics of Chessed

Rebbetzin Nicole Green

Constantia Hebrew Congregation

This megillah tells us nothing of [ritual] uncleanliness or cleanliness, or of prohibitions or allowances. For what purpose, then, was it written? To teach how great is the reward for those who perform acts of kindness.

(Midrash, Ruth Rabbah 2:14)

מגילה זו אין בה לא טומאה, ולא טהרה, ולא איסור, ולא היתר, ולמה נכתבה ללמדך כמה שכר טוב לגומלי חסדים.

(רות רבה ב:יד)

The Midrash1 claims that the purpose of Megillat Ruth is actually to highlight the value of chessed: “this megillah tells us nothing of {ritual} uncleanliness or cleanliness, or of prohibitions or allowances. For what purpose, then, was it written? To teach how great is the reward for those who perform acts of kindness”.

I have been baffled time and again by this statement! Surely there had been many great acts of chessed prior to Ruth choosing to bind her fate with that of Naomi, her destitute mother-in-law, and to convert to Judaism, despite an uncertain future?! What about the great kindness performed by little Rivkah to Eliezer, a perfect stranger?! Or better yet, the immeasurable kindness done by Rachel to her sister Leah, choosing to forego her own happiness so her sister should not be shamed?!

Ruth and Sodom

Let’s try and deconstruct the origins of Ruth to understand the above Midrash.

Ruth came from a murky lineage! Her great-grandfather was the enigmatic Lot, Abraham’s nephew, who journeyed with Abraham to the land of Canaan and mysteriously chose to settle in the infamous city of Sodom. The well-known Mishna from Ethics of the Fathers:2 “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours”, describes the philosophy of Sodom, say the Sages! If Abraham was known for his legendary kindness with his tent open on all sides for easy access to the stranger, Sodom was the exact opposite! Kindness for Sodom made a person needy and dependent! A Sodomite had to learn to be self-reliant, it was for his benefit. Autonomy was their motto! This was then the legacy and gene pool of Ruth.

Rabbi Miller, in his magnificent 400 page exposition on the Book of Ruth, ”Rising Moon”, points out that Lot went to Sodom because it was precisely the exact opposite of chessed! Lot had been on the receiving end of Abraham’s kindness. Standing in the glow of Abraham’s sun, Lot felt diminished, erased, marginalised. Abraham was the archetypal rich uncle and Lot’s entire status and wealth were due to him. It is interesting how in the Book of Leviticus, chessed, as in the verse, “it is a chessed” - with reference to uncovering a close family’s nakedness3 - Rashi explains it as an embarrassment (in Aramaic Chasudah)!

Intertwined with the kindness of Chessed is an element of shame! Rabbi Miller explains how, “in understanding Lot, we must face up to an uncomfortable fact of life: all acts of kindness have a dark underside. Every act of giving implies an act of taking and the shame of eating”, “the bread of embarrassment”.4

How could Lot’s dilemma be solved? Does receiving always create dependency or can it generate opportunity?

Enters Ruth

“It had to be a woman, cast biologically and metaphysically as a receiver. A woman, who back in the Garden of Eden was created in the context of relationship, ‘ezer k’negdo’,5 who would teach the world about the gift of vulnerability”, says Miriam Kosman in her courageous book, “The circle, the arrow and the spiral”!

Circumstances had thrust Ruth, a former princess of Moab, in a very humiliating situation when she arrived in Israel with the destitute, fallen from grace, Naomi. To subsist she was forced to glean in a stranger’s field. Oblivious to her plight, Ruth searches among the fields to find the person she is looking for. She makes it clear to Naomi that she is not looking for food, she is seeking “grace”, chein, a place where she could sense the potential for “relationship”, she is needing “to find favour in {someone’s} eyes”.

“Looking for a relationship”, says M Kosman, “is the ultimate in vulnerability, perhaps even more than having to beg for food. You have literally no control over whether someone likes you. Yet Ruth was strong enough to be vulnerable!”

And Ruth brought from her recent past, as a Moabite, the attitude of the distant Sodom. She never lost her independent autonomy, even as the receiver of scraps.

Unlike Lot, she understood that the flow of giving and receiving is not about power, it is about mutuality

The receiver gives opportunity to the giver, the giver gives sustenance to the receiver, each needs the other! The Midrash sums it up thus: “the poor person does more for the rich person than otherwise. We derive this from Ruth’s statement to Naomi, ‘the name of the man with whom I dealt with today {is Boaz}’. Ruth did not say, ‘the name of the man who did something for me’,

but rather, ‘I did something for him’, as if to say, ‘I did so much for him, did so much good for him, all for a single piece of bread’”.6

Lot felt erased or diminished by the gifts of Abraham. It would take a great woman, his descendant, to correct the scales of chessed, and it takes a great sense of self - and of chein - to achieve this.

Perhaps Megillat Ruth is read over Shavuot, the time of Tikkun Leil, because in her life and by her example, Ruth performs a tikkun, ‘rectification’: called a tikkun because it reflects an intensely human ability to repair damaged relationships through strength and vulnerability. The book starts with a famine and ends with the birth and genealogy of David, started by Ruth, and leading to the ultimate Tikkun Olam, ‘rectification of the world’, with the coming of Moshiach, a descendant of David! May it happen soon!

(The questions and the search are mine. The explanations and the elucidation are from Mrs. Miriam Kosman’s book “The circle, the arrow, the spiral" and Rabbi Chaim Miller “Rising Moon” on Ruth.)

1. Midrash, Ruth Rabba 2:14

2 Avot 5:10

3. Leviticus 20:17

4 Talmud Yerushalmi, Orlah 6a

5. Genesis 2:18

6. Midrash, Ruth Rabba 5:9

©2019 by The Office of The Chief Rabbi