By now just about all of us are in summer mode, and Yom Tov cheesecake and blintzes are out of our minds – though not necessarily off our bodies. Nonetheless, the topic I am addressing is tied to the festival of Shavuot, as I wrote it just after the holiday had ended. (This time warp often occurs when addressing deadlines ahead of time, a necessity when I know that visiting a near minyan of pre-school grandchildren in three cities will make writing a coherent column rather challenging).
Now that the time discrepancy has been explained, while I was in shul on the second day of Shavuot, (no staying at home when Yizkor is recited, no matter how many little ones are clamoring for attention) I took a few moments to glance at the English translation of Megillat Rut. The story itself is quite engaging in any language, but reading it in your “mamaloshen” adds to the enjoyment and appreciation of the drama inherent in the drastic and unpredictable reversal of fortune of the two women chronicled in the book.
The aristocratic Jewess, Naomi and the Moabite princess, Rut, go from riches to rags and happily, back to riches.
Besides being a compelling story of how life can be a roller coaster, Megillat Rut is replete with invaluable lessons on how to behave in the way the Torah instructs us. Through Rut’s relationship to her dead husband’s mother, we see what unwavering loyalty and devotion is all about, (and that mothers and daughters-in law can get along) and we are shown the virtue and reward of “stepping up to the plate” and accepting your halachic obligations with grace and an open mind, as Boaz did. (His honorable act resulted in his being the ancestor of the royal house of David and Moshiach. It doesn’t get better than that!)
We also see the importance of hakarat hatov. Naomi did not have an “es kimt mir” attitude regarding the multi-faceted sacrifice and mesirat nefesh that Rut unflinchingly suffered in order to ensure her mother-in-law’s well-being. Naomi is fully aware and appreciative of Rut’s heroic and selfless efforts on her behalf, and she frets over Rut’s future. In perek gimmel, Naomi declares, “My daughter, shall I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you?” It is through Naomi’s cleverness – fueled by her unselfish willingness to let go of her only “pillar” – that Rut connects with Boaz. Naomi’s hakarat hatov launches the process that leads to the future birth of Moshiach.
But there is yet a bigger message to absorb and internalize from the trials and tribulations of the megilla‘s namesake, revealed in three statements uttered by Boaz. In Chapter 2, Verse 9, Boaz lets Rut know that he has instructed his men to not touch her. But he is not done. For in Verse 15, it is written, “Boaz commanded his young men, saying: ‘Let her (referring to Rut) glean even among the sheaves, and put her not to shame.'” As if his message of protection was not enough, in the next verse he orders his men “not to rebuke her.”
The question that begs to be asked is why Boaz thought it was necessary to warn his staff/workers not to shame Rut, and to refrain from any physical or verbal assault that would result in hurting and humiliating her, or making her feel worthless, inadequate or inferior. Why did he feel it necessary to forbid them to harass or bully Rut or cause her any physical or emotional distress?
It would appear that Boaz surrounded himself with pious men, and that he hired people who were G-d fearing and shomer mitzvot. They obviously knew the halacha regarding gleanings as commanded in the Torah. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that they were also fully cognizant of the biblical commandment to be kind to widows, and to welcome the ger in their midst – of which Rut was both.
So why did Boaz feel it was necessary to admonish his men not to not touch Ruth, nor rebuke her or “put her to shame”? Why did he feel compelled to remind his men to be menschlich?
My guess is that he knew human nature all too well. He knew that being raised in a Torah environment does not guarantee a person will act with derech eretz – with respect and consideration. One need only look at the sefira period that precedes Shavuot to realize how true that is. We mourn the premature deaths of thousands of talmidei chachamim – the pious, brilliant students of Rabi Akiva, who perished because of a lack of respect for one another. If these incredible scholars, so saturated with Torah, were able to act in a manner that was deemed disrespectful or inappropriate, how much greater the likelihood that a regular Yid could indulge in bad behavior?