Ruth’s homeland, Moav, was steeped in idolatry, its culture defined by egocentricity. Idolatry is predicated on placating the gods, bribing them to get what you want, or at least to avoid provoking their wrath. Religion in Moav was a business – what can I give the gods in order to get what I want?
Torah represents the complete antithesis. It’s not about what I want from the gods but what Hashem wants from me. Moabite culture was based on selfishness; Torah culture is based on selflessness.
Megilas Rus so poignantly and poetically dramatizes the conflict between these two forces and the tragic consequences when selflessness surrenders to selfishness. The story of Ruth revolves around two groups, comprising three great personages each, that reacted to life’s challenges very differently. One group – Elimelech, Machlon, and Kilyon – made their dreams and desires their top priorities. The second group – Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth – made the will of G-d the primary force in their lives.
Elimelech, Machlon, and Kilyon were at the cusp of greatness until their selfishness led to their untimely deaths. Why were men of such great stature cut down in their prime? R’ Chiya says they did not pray for the famine in Eretz Yisrael to end. Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz, rosh yeshiva of Chofetz Chaim, argues that they undoubtedly davened since halacha demands such behavior during a communal crisis. What R’ Chiya meant was that they didn’t pray with enough kavanah. Had they prayed with more intensity, they could have annulled the decree.
The Medrash Rabba teaches: “If prayer doesn’t accomplish everything, surely it accomplishes half. No communal prayer goes unanswered.” Indeed, the tefillah of Boaz finally ended the famine. Similarly, in response to Naomi’s heartfelt pleas, Hashem enabled Ruth to miraculously conceive even though she had no womb.
Rav Henoch said: “Let no person say the power of prayer is given only to tzaddikim…and that Hashem does not hear the tefillah of ordinary Jews.” The Seforno cites Lavan’s blessings to Yaakov’s family as proof that even the berachos of villains, if sincere, are accepted.
Naomi’s tefillos were accepted because they emanated from intense empathy for the pain of others. She personified selflessness. Her refinement and regal bearing were a perfect blend of majesty and modesty. Her exceptional modesty made such an impact on Ruth that Ruth’s modesty surpassed that of the other Jewish women gleaning in Boaz’s field.
Moav was the most immodest and immoral nation in the world, yet Naomi never lowered her standards. During the 10 years that she lived among them, the Moabites even observed the laws of tzniyus. How is that possible? Rabbi Leibowitz answers that immodesty in a woman is a distortion of her true nature, a perversion of her very essence. That’s why our sages excused the Moabite women for not greeting the Jews with food and water in the desert; from their very creation, they explained, women were hardwired not to enjoy leaving their homes.
In the depths of their hearts, women – even models, movie stars and Moabites – do not want to be seen in public. Sefer Maalos Hamidos states: “Every woman feels degraded when men stare at her.” How, then, can we explain the billion-dollar cosmetic industry catering to consumers who pay to be stared at?
In the recesses of their hearts, explains Rav Henoch, these female consumers are confused and do not know what will really make them happy. Only the Torah can tell us how to achieve true happiness. We need not be apologetic to family, friends, or co-workers if we act, dress, or speak modestly. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, the point of “living is not to lower standards but to raise those that have been too low.”
If Naomi was so selfless and modest, why was she punished so severely? Because she wasn’t insistent when the time called for it. Halachically a man cannot compel his wife to abandon Eretz Yisrael, and so Naomi could have unequivocally refused to leave. Unfortunately, she did not want to “be a nudge” and didn’t press the issue.
Later she failed to vehemently oppose her sons’ intermarriages. Naomi assumed her sons would ignore her. But the Alshich says she was mistaken. He points out that Megillas Rus states that after Elimelech died, “she was left and her two sons.” The word for adult sons is “banehah.” But the megillah uses the word for young children, “yeladeha.” By using this word, the megillah implies that they respected her maternal guidance as adults just like they did as children.
Yes, we do have to pick our battles, but if a battle is so significant that it determines who will win the war, we must use all the ammunition in our arsenal.
Let us remember the messages of Megilas Rus when we make our own personal choices. We should pray for Hashem’s help. We should proudly maintain our standards of modesty and raise others up rather than letting others drag us down. Just as Ruth was guided by Naomi’s wisdom, we should seek the guidance of mentors, rabbis, and poskim, enabling us to see our problems through the eyes of da’as Torah. As a link to tradition and a lifeline to truth, a mentor is a must!
The characters in the story of Ruth had their magic moment of decision, their day of destiny. So do we all. One small step is big enough to transform hopelessness into happiness and tragedy into triumph. May we all be zoche to take that turn on our own unique road to eternity.