According to one ancient rabbinic commentary, the book of Ruth—read in many synagogues on the holiday of Shavuot, which begins Saturday night—was written only because it tells of deeds of lovingkindness being rewarded. A Moabite by birth, the book’s titular heroine is a descendant of Abraham’s nephew Lot, who, in the book of Genesis, parts ways with his illustrious uncle to dwell in the sinful city of Sodom. Miriam Kosman, contrasting the selfishness for which rabbinic tradition condemns the Sodomites with the selflessness exhibited by Ruth, suggests a novel reading of the book:
“What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” sounds like a perfectly reasonable life philosophy. This vacuum cleaner is mine. I’m happy to lend it to you, but please return it in good shape, and when I borrow your drill, I’ll do the same. The talmudic tractate of Pirkei Avot seems to agree that this is normal—“average behavior.” Yet it goes on to tell us that “some say that this [perfectly reasonable approach] is the characteristic of Sodom.” . . .
In Sodom’s worldview, lovingkindness is the cruelest thing you can do to a person, because giving to someone makes him needy and dependent. . . . Perhaps Lot was suffering from the . . . “thanks-but-no-thanks” syndrome. . . . Whether one gets one’s wealth because of another person, the way Lot did from Abraham, or . . . directly from God, there’s a reflexive reaction to wrench away from whoever is giving to you, to assert one’s independence, to say, “thanks for thinking of me, but it’s okay, I’ve got it. No, thanks. I can manage on my own.” . . .
Circumstances had thrust Ruth, a former princess [according to the midrash], into an incredibly humiliating situation. She was a convert in a strange land whose people looked askance at Moabites in general and at her in particular. Her only relative was [her mother-in-law Naomi], a destitute, fallen-from-grace widow, and their sustenance had to come from scavenging in a stranger’s field. And yet Ruth does not seem to recognize this, nor does she seem to grasp how pathetic her situation is.
Eventually it is the kindness of Boaz, who is first Ruth’s benefactor and then her suitor, that saves her and Naomi from their plight. Yet in the end it is Boaz who thanks Ruth for her kindness toward himself, while praising her for her selfless devotion to her mother-in-law, which is the book’s central example of lovingkindness. Kosman argues that a fundamental link connects Ruth’s ability to accept the kindness of others nobly and gracefully with her ability to deal kindly with others. Together, these two attributes constitute a rejection of the Sodomite attitude of asking nothing and giving nothing.
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