Redemption and the Power of Small Things

The following article on the Book of Ruth is based on the writings of Rabbi Yosef Z’ev Lipovitz – a figure not well known to American readers. Rabbi Lipovitz (1889-1962) wove difference into elegant, cohesive tapestries. A product of the famed Slabodka Yeshivah, he was at once a teacher of the young, Torah ambassador to the nascent community in Palestine, musar-psychologist, and visionary of an ethical Torah-state. His writing shows the same fluid grace in uniting Torah text, rabbinic midrash, and psychological and social insight. Each illuminates the other, effortlessly, and without self-consciousness. He does not try to resolve conflicts between these different strata of thought; he refuses to admit to a tension in the first place! To the Torah master, all this knowledge is hewn of the same source — the illumination of Divine teaching.

 It is my hope that this essay, based on Nachlat Yosef, Rav Lipovitz’s famed commentary to Megillat Rut, will stimulate more interest in his works. I, in turn, would know nothing of Rav Lipovitz without the pioneering work of Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, my colleague on the Jewish Action editorial board. We all owe him our thanks.

Three women, all widows, walked hand in hand. Although they were united by the specter of a bleak, shared future, their past differed greatly. Naomi longed to return to a land she knew well, but not really to find the happiness that had been tragically wrenched from her on the foreign soil of Moab. Her memories were rich, but she expected very little positive ahead. Entering the sunset of her years, she was drawn back to Israel to be reconciled with her past, not to start anew.

The other two women had better prospects, if they wanted them. The country they were leaving was the one that had nurtured them. They were of royal blood; opportunity and privilege beckoned them to remain there. Much younger, they could have hoped to start families again. As unwanted strangers, they could hope for little positive in the land of Israel for which they departed.

Why, then, did they join the older woman? Extraordinary devotion, it would seem. They could not bear to abandon a mother-in-law they had learned to love. Their ill-fated marriages to Machlon and Chilyon were never meant to be, but they taught them something about the richness of family life. In the better days of their marriages, they had seen relationships based on true love and respect, driven further on a highway of mutual chesed. That chesed now came naturally to them, and translated effortlessly into a commitment to Naomi. They walked together, determined to share the bleakness of the future.

It was Naomi who broke the silence. Touched to the core by the magnanimous behavior of the younger women, she asks Heaven to give them all sorts of blessings. Her prayer completely ignores her own predicament; she focuses only on the needs of her two daughters-in-law. What hope can there be for them to ever remarry, should they follow her back to the Jewish state? The most far-fetched scenario — Naomi quickly bearing children — was an impossible dream, and even it would not address their needs. Mindful of their devotion to her, Naomi for the first time addresses them as “my daughters,”1 escalating their relationship to a new peak of closeness.

Ruth and Orpah learned nothing new from her words. The somber forecast was all too obvious, and they had made their decision despite it. Yet, somehow, Naomi’s declaration took the wind out of the sails of their collective resolve. Orpah changed her mind, and was ready to bid farewell to Naomi, and return to her birthplace.

Let us look carefully at Naomi’s attempt to discourage her two daughters-in-law. “Will you wait until they [the unborn children I do not yet have, nor expect ever to have] grow up? Will you remain chained, without a man to marry? No, my daughters! I am much embittered mikem; God’s Hand is extended against me.”2

The two women each heard a different message. Orpah understood Naomi to be pointing a finger of blame at them with the words “I am embittered mikembecause of you.” This is what she heard: “You were, after all, not the perfect matches for my two sons. You were not of our people, our faith. I appreciate your love and devotion, but realize that we have paid a terrible price for it. These unions angered my God, and the consequences to our family have been catastrophic. We cannot compound the mistake by bringing you back into the midst of Jewish society. Do all of us a favor, and go your own way.”

Naomi, in fact, meant nothing of the sort. She grieved for them, not because of them. The text demonstrates this here, when she calls the younger women “daughters” for the first time. No mother pushes away her own daughters. Orpah’s ears failed to hear the subtlety. The rest of her words, though, fell like raindrops on a parched and waiting bloom, moving it to freshness and life. While she was willing to follow Naomi, on some level, Orpah desperately needed an out. She heard what she wanted to hear.

Orpah cried bitterly and embraced Naomi. The hug was genuine, but it did not move them closer together. Rather, it helped them disengage. It concentrated all the feeling and closeness that Orpah felt into one magic moment — from which Orpah could now move on and begin a new life.

Orpah had not feigned her devotion a few minutes earlier. She was fully prepared to follow her mother-in-law back to a life of privation and penury. Her love was sincere, but did not flow from the deepest parts of her inner self. She offered a conflicted love, at loggerheads with a personal agenda that was compelling. Compelling, indeed, to most people. Helping others is wonderful, when you needn’t sacrifice your own life to do it. Reaching out to others is a real human need, but substituting another’s interest for your own does not make much sense. Orpah stared down a choice. She could enhance Naomi’s life, but only by completely destroying her own. Surely there are limits to selflessness! We can be asked to share our time and energy on behalf of others, but surely not to sacrifice our own identities! Idealism beautifies our inner lives, but it must not offer up the idealist on its own altar!

Orpah arrived at a human norm, a position that is reasonable and defensible by better-than-average people. The Torah’s version is preserved in both Talmud and halachah: chayecha kodmim3 — your own life and property take precedence over those of your neighbor. The Torah does not expect us to pound our egos into weightless fluff.

What counter-argument moved Ruth? The silence of the text is deafening. There was no counter-argument. If cogent, logically tenable positions were the currency expected, Ruth was bankrupt.

Ruth did not reason her way to Naomi’s side, nor did she abandon reason and simply emote her way there. “And Ruth clung to her.”4 Ruth latched on to something different, something higher. She attached herself to a Divine trait of chesed. Many aspects of our relationships with Hashem founder on shoals of inadequacy if we try to put them in words. Yet what fuels them is more powerful than can be contained by mere words. So it was with Ruth. She perhaps could not explain why she acted as she did. But something about Naomi had become part of her, indivisible with herself. She had incorporated Hashem’s chesed in its most potent form. Her closeness with her mother-in-law and her attachment to God were made of the same stuff.

So Orpah walked out, secure in the logic of the ordinary and the common. She retained a typical complement of ego. Ruth, meanwhile, clung to the uncommon. It is fascinating to see how Chazal link the unfolding of their personal histories to this one event.

Orpah returned to her Moabite roots. She raised an exceptional family, including no less than four mighty warriors, among them the infamous Goliath. The four tears she shed in parting with her Naomi merited this for her,5 according to one Rabbinic passage. Another sees a parallel to the four mil of distancethat she accompanied Naomi before parting ways. That journey, and the tears she shed, speak eloquently of the turmoil within Orpah. She faced a difficult decision, and she didn’t hide from the forces within her that wrestled for advantage. This struggle took strength and might; her four sons reflected her gevurah.

Orpah’s strength was limited; Ruth’s knew no bounds.

The strength was almost predictable— for both Orpah and Ruth. Both were scions of legendary women of an earlier time. The daughters of Lot, founders of the Moabite nation, demonstrated nobility within their own degradation. Notwithstanding the tragic error of their incestuous tryst with their father, they were prepared to sacrifice their own welfare for the benefit of building worlds. Ruth and Naomi followed in the positive footsteps of their forebears. They were both blessed with the spiritual capacity to build worlds, and to give of themselves.

They drew unequally from their ancestral font. Orpah’s strength was limited; Ruth’s knew no bounds. Orpah’s selflessness exhausted itself in her final embrace with her mother-in-law. Having spent the spiritual quality of her strength, she was left with a superficial shell of power and will, one that was filled quite nicely by her four strongman-sons. Taking leave from Naomi, a psychological need arose to distance herself completely from her, and in time, from all that she stood for. She reverted to morally repugnant ways;6 her son Goliath tormented the Jewish people with his strength. Orpah’s heritage of fierce determination was effectively stood on its head, now ready to destroy what it had previously valued.

For 40 days he taunted them. (Ironically, his first words to the Jewish army were “Anochi HaPlishti“— I am Goliath the Philistine. The nefarious ego-component that blocked his mother from achieving real spiritual significance returned in her son, and is presented center stage, up front.) An army that intrepidly went to the battlefront became demoralized not by meeting up with Goliath, but with hearing him!7 He wished to do battle, claims a Midrash, not just with the Jewish army, but with God Himself.8 This means that he waged psychological warfare against the opposing Jewish army, by cleverly mocking and ridiculing their beliefs with thoughtful, logical barbs. Over a period of 40 days, he began to wear away at many of them, who did not have effective retorts. Again, the trademarks of Orpah: ego and logic.

For 40 days, Goliath had the upper hand. His victory was short-lived, limited, just like the positive determination of his mother Orpah existed just for the moment. David, descendant and spiritual heir of Ruth, toppled him. Contrary to the ordinary rules of logic, against common sense, sacrificing his own self-interest, David took on the blaspheming Goliath. Like Ruth his forebear, he drew his inspiration from a higher place, clinging not to the oppressive “reality” of the bleakness of the day, but to Hashem Himself. The way of Ruth triumphed over the way of Orpah.

Ruth was not the trailblazer. Her road had long been familiar to the Jewish people. Our survival is not based on any predictability or logic. No one can offer a credible, natural reason for our endurance through our remarkable history. We survived only by refusing to speak the language of the conventional. We shunned the odds and probabilities and connected with Hashem Himself.

We, the Jewish people, invented the policy of devekut, of clinging to a vision that exceeds human grasp.

Not that it was history that invented this approach. We, the Jewish people, invented the policy of devekut, of clinging to a vision that exceeds human grasp. When offered the Torah, our rhapsodic response stunned the angels of Heaven. “Naaseh v’nishmah,” we replied, the only group to embrace Torah without reservation. Skeptical, calculating as we can be, we threw all discretion to the winds, and accepted what we had not seen. Or rather, we opted to cling to Something we had experienced and trusted beyond the logic of the ordinary, and that allowed us to escape the demands of prudence that comes from self-interest.

We skip to the event that drives the story to a successful end. Having “chanced” upon the field of Boaz, Ruth and Naomi benefit greatly from the largesse and special consideration of their relative. Naomi waits for her kinsman to provide a more comprehensive solution to their plight, but he seems reluctant to act. Naomi instructs Ruth to dramatically remind him of their plight, by quietly moving to his side in the dead of the night at the threshing floor.

Boaz understands the hint. As the new day approaches, he resolves to send Ruth back to Naomi with his pledge of quick action. To the ordinary person, it was clear what had to happen. Ruth had spent the night in seclusion with Boaz, but nothing unseemly had transpired between them. No one knew of their secret, shrouded by the darkness and privacy of the night. All this was about to change, with daybreak and the imminent arrival of workers to the field. To preserve the good name he had labored for decades to earn, Ruth had to rush home, avoiding all human contact. For them to be seen together would generate rumors and slurs they would never be able to repair. His reputation stood to be ruined, his authority and rank diminished, the name of his entire family would be tarnished. They could ill afford to take any chances. Ruth would have to leave without a moment to spare.

Then Boaz remembers Naomi, and considers her stake in the unfolding drama. She had suffered terribly; so much expectation rode on Boaz taking charge of her predicament. How could he not try to reassure her that everything would be fine in the end? He could do it— but only by sacrificing precious moments of time that compromised his own interests.

The reasonable thing to do, perhaps, would have been to call (accurately!) the situation an emergency one, and send Ruth away with regrets that he could not do more for under the pressure of circumstances. Perhaps later…

Boaz, however, puts aside all self-interest. He insists on sending something tangible to Naomi, something that will assure her of his intentions. He has very little, if anything, with him. He sends what he can: some barley from the new harvest.

Just what was it that Boaz gave to Ruth? We know that he handed her six something of barley. Could it have been six bushels? Could she really contain six bushels in a shawl as the text describes her? Rather, it seems, he gave her six single stalks of barley, as a symbolic declaration of his intention to bring about a solution. Because of these six, Chazal tell us, Ruth would merit six tzaddikim, including Mashiach himself! Quite an impressive payoff for what usually serves as animal fodder!

The text insists on capturing every small, precious moment. “He said to her, ‘Give me your kerchief’…hold on to it…she held it…he measured into it, and put it upon her .”9 This slow, deliberate drama unfolded at great expense to Boaz. Each moment that he delayed in sending Ruth back home compromised his reputation and standing. Each word that passed between them was potentially devastating, increasing the likelihood that they would be discovered, and become the victim of scandalous rumors. Boaz, though, escapes the limitations of his own needs in order to address the pain of a distraught old woman.

By doing this, Boaz shows himself to be a true match for Ruth. They share the single quality most necessary to pave the way for Mashiach himself.

The days of Messianic tranquility are a foil to the conflict and strife that characterize the rest of human history. The opening scenes of human civilization adumbrate what would follow. Cain had already demonstrated what would become Mankind’s greatest failing: each person regarding the next as a threat and an intruder. In Cain’s mind, if Abel trespassed ever so slightly on what he regarded as his own rightful territory, then Cain had no place in this world at all! Self-interest interposed itself between issues of right and wrong; Abel became expendable, and could be killed.

Man’s redemption will come about by living the reverse. Mashiach will be successful only when people regard their neighbors as enlarging their world, and enhancing their lives, not encroaching upon them. Mashiach‘s message will be taken up by those who are successful in breaking down the barriers of ego and self that divide us, and turn us into enemies. The boundary between one person and the next must soften; people will need to put the interests of another, occasionally, before their own.

This attitude will not have to be created de novo. Giants of the past already laid claim to this quality. Two who were particularly successful married and passed along their capacity to their children. Their message would travel along the byways of history, eventually lodging in the greatest of their progeny, Mashiach himself.

Neither Boaz nor Ruth created a great stir. Neither taught the doctrine formally, created a new thesis, started a new school of thought. Few, if any, of their peers recognized just how complete their selflessness was. They showed it, after all, in small, pedestrian ways. But HaKadosh Baruch Hu knew how to cement the foundation of the house of Mashiach. “Boaz did his, and Ruth did hers. Said HaKadosh Baruch Hu, ‘So too will I do Mine!'”10

Quiet revolutionaries, they were. No one—not even they themselves — understood their revolution. By reaching out just a bit more, by each of their setting aside just a little more self than had been done before, they demonstrated that the dominant theme of a New World could indeed become reality. The rest, quite literally, is history.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein lives in Israel and is a contributing editor to Jewish Action.


1. Ruth 1:11.

2. Ruth 1:11-13.

3. Bava Metzia 62A.

4. Ruth 1:14.

5. Rava in Sotah 42B.

6. ibid.

7. I Shmuel 17:11.

8. Midrash Shmuel sec.20.

9. Ruth 4:15.

10. Ruth Rabbah 7:6.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of Jewish Action.


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