But perhaps the main reason for our reading the Book of Ruth on this festival is because Shavuot is also known as the “Time of the Giving of Our Law,” and we get such a vivid picture of the perfect ger tzedek, the proselyte, in this book. For we were all more or less in that category prior to the giving of the Torah; and when we received it, we too, like the ger tzedek, pledged ourselves to accept the Torah and fulfill its 613 mitzvot.
Ruth was a Moabite princess of very fine character. She was dissatisfied with the idol-worship of her own people, and when the opportunity arose, she gladly gave up the privileges of royalty in her land and accepted a life of poverty among people whom she admired.
Here is how it all came about:
It was in the days when the Judges ruled in Israel. The children of Israel had become lax in their observances of the Torah, and had called G‑d’s punishment down upon themselves. A great famine reigned in the Land of Israel.
There was a certain man in Judah named Elimelech. He was a wealthy merchant who was not used to hunger and poverty, and so he thought he could escape from the misery by moving elsewhere. He therefore took his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, and went to live in Moab.
Ruth became friendly with this Jewish family. She learned to admire their laws and customs. The dissatisfaction which she had already felt at the meaningless idol-worship of her own people now turned to positive objection. And so, when one of the sons asked her to marry him, she was happy and proud to accept. She did not feel any pangs of regret at what she was giving up: her life of luxury at the palace, her royal title, her prospects of wealth and honor in the future. All she saw was the selfishness and mercilessness of her own people, and the difference of the Jews to whom she now had attached herself.
Elimelech and his two sons died, and Naomi was left, a poor widow, not knowing what to do or whither to turn. She therefore said to Ruth and to her other daughter-in-law, Orpah (also a Moabite):
“My daughters, I must go away, and I have decided to return to my hometown, to Beth-Lechem. Things cannot be too good there, and there is no reason why you should suffer too. Take my advice, therefore, and go back to your parents’ homes. Your husbands are dead, and perhaps if you remain in your own country, you may find other men to marry you. I have lost my sons forever, but you are young; you can get other husbands.”
Orpah looked sad, kissed her mother-in-law, and bade her goodbye. But Ruth clung tearfully to Naomi and begged her to allow her to go with her. With these touching words she implored her, saying:
“Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy G‑d my G‑d; where thou diest will I die, and there will I be buried; the L‑rd do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”
Ruth knew full well what she was doing. Naomi had reminded her of the difficulties which confronted the Jew at all times, yet Ruth was adamant in her determination to follow her mother-in-law, and to cling to the faith of her adoption, which had become so dear to her.
The future was to prove that Ruth would be justly rewarded for her high resolve; but even in her poverty, Ruth had no regrets.
It was harvest time as Ruth and Naomi came to the land of Judah. They were both worn out from their journey, and Ruth prevailed upon Naomi to rest, while she herself would go out into the fields of Beth-Lechem and see what she could find to sustain them from hunger.
Ruth entered a field where many men were busy cutting barley, others were binding it into sheaves, while others were piling them onto wagons and carting them away.
A little hesitatingly, but spurred on by her hunger and by the thought that she must get something for her dear mother-in-law, Ruth went into the field and sat down for a while to rest and to see what luck she might have here.
Suddenly she was startled to hear a voice saying to her, kindly and gently: “G‑d be with you, stranger! Come along into the field. Do not be bashful. Gather some ears of corn, and satisfy your hunger!”
It was Boaz himself, the owner of the field, who thus addressed Ruth.
Ruth thanked him and plucked some ears of grain. She then was going to depart, when the same kind voice urged her to stay awhile and gather pe’ah.
“What is pe’ah?” asked Ruth.
“Our Torah tells us that when the owner of a field has his grain cut, he is not to cut the corners of the field, but to leave them for the poor, the needy and the stranger to come and reap for themselves,” answered Boaz.
“How wonderful!” exclaimed Ruth. And so she stayed and cut the corn from a corner of the field, and was then again about to go away.
“You do not need to go yet,” urged Boaz. “Why not stay and benefit from leket (gleanings)?”
“What does leket mean?” again asked Ruth.
“According to our law, if a reaper misses some grain with his scythe, or drops some, he is not allowed to go back to gather that grain, and this must be left for the poor and the stranger,” explained Boaz patiently to Ruth. He was finding her more and more attractive, and thought he had never seen such a noble-looking lady.
Ruth said nothing, but saw no reason for refusing to take advantage of the laws of the Torah, which she herself had so gladly embraced.
When she gathered a whole basketful, she went up to Boaz, thanked him very sincerely for his kindness, and got ready to depart.
“There is no need for you to go yet,” coaxed Boaz. “There is still shikchah (forgotten sheaves) which you can take.”
“The Torah is indeed limitless in its care of the less fortunate ones,” said Ruth. “Now please tell me, what is shikchah?”
“When the owner of a field is taking his load of grain to his granaries, it is possible that he may have forgotten some sheaves in the field. Well the Torah forbids him to go back and get them; he must leave these forgotten sheaves for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.”
Ruth was so happy with her good fortune. She had gathered almost more than she could carry. She and Naomi were now well provided for some time. She again thanked Boaz, who made her promise to come again. In the meantime Boaz had made enquiries about the attractive stranger who had captured his heart, and he discovered that she was the widowed daughter-in-law of Naomi.
Ruth was full of excitement as she hastened to her mother-in-law and related all that had happened to her in the fields of Boaz. Naomi was happy that Ruth had been so successful and had found favor in the eyes of Boaz, the wealthy landowner. And so, when Boaz asked her to marry him, Naomi urged her to do so.
Now Ruth was unexpectedly rewarded with wealth and happiness. She and Boaz were blessed with children who became famous in history. She lived long enough to see her great-grandson David, who became the L‑rd’s anointed and beloved king of all the Jewish people.
For Ruth and Boaz had a son named Obed, who became the father of Jesse. And David, as you know, was the youngest son of Jesse.
Whenever our sages want to point to a shining example of Jewish womanhood, of self-sacrificing devotion to the higher things in life, of loyalty and modesty and excellence of character, they speak of Ruth.
The strange thing about this great woman, whose story we read on the festival of Shavuot, is that she was not really a Jew by birth, but a Moabite princess. Yet, perhaps in this fact lies one of the most important lessons that we are to learn from Ruth. By her own strength of character and genuine love for the Jewish people and the holy Torah, she became one of the greatest Jewish women, the ancestor of King David, from whom, in turn, the Redeemer will stem.
How did it come about that the princess of one of the not-so-friendly neighbors of Israel became an example of Jewish womanhood?
Well, for one thing, even long before Ruth had ever met any Jews, she had become disgusted with the idol worship of her own people, which was one of the lowest and most cruel. For among the gods whom the Moabites worshipped was Moloch, in whose honor young children were thrown into the fire. Ruth realized soon that no mercy, or kindness, or justice could be expected from such idol worship, and she searched for a new religion.
Then, one of the ten worst famines in all of mankind’s history hit the Land of Israel. Elimelech, one of the notables of Judah, came to Moab, where he hoped to find food and an easier life. Ruth became acquainted with the Jewish family and with their religion. Princess Ruth was happy to marry one of the two sons of Elimelech, even though it meant that she had to give up the comforts and honor of her royal position to join the household of a Jewish refugee.
Things became even worse when G‑d punished Elimelech for not having stayed with his own people in Judah to share their sorrow and plight and to help them, instead of running away to Moab. Elimelech and his two sons died far from their home. Elimelech’s wife, the beautiful Naomi, was left a widow without children. She decided to return to her homeland, where her late husband at least owned some land. Naturally, she would not think of asking her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, to go with her to share in her poor, joyless life, and she asked them to return to their homes. But, as it turned out, only Orpah, after much persuasion from her mother-in-law, turned back to her own people. Ruth, however, had become so convinced of the truth and beauty of the Jewish religion and customs that under no circumstances would she now part from Naomi to return to her royal home and live as an idol worshipper. Her mother-in-law tried hard to dissuade her, but all her arguments that she had nothing to offer her, while here she had so much to gain, were in vain. Ruth’s reply, the highest and noblest of all expressions of faithfulness, was:
“Entreat me not to leave thee,
And to return home from following after thee;
For whither thou goest, I will go;
And where thou lodgest, I will lodge;
Thy people are my people, and thy G‑d, my G‑d.
Where thou diest, will I die, and there be buried;
May G‑d do so to me, and more also,
If aught but death part thee and me.”
Thus spoke this noble young woman, and these words have become the immortal slogan of those who have learned to appreciate the truth and beauty of the Torah.
Little concerned over the prospect of poverty and hunger, Ruth accompanied Naomi to the land of her late husband, putting her hope and faith in G‑d that He would not forsake them in their need.
When Naomi and Ruth arrived in Beth Lechem, the city of Judah where Elimelech had come from, it was the time of the barley harvest. The famine had passed, and the soil was again yielding its fruit. The two women had nothing to eat. Elimelech’s possessions had meanwhile been taken over by his relatives, and it would take some time to regain them and sell them. The natural thing would have been for Naomi to go out and get some food, for after all she was well known here at home, and the people would surely help her. Were they not greatly moved by her words, “Call me no longer ‘Naomi,’ the Sweet One, but ‘Mara,’ the Bitter One, for G‑d has dealt very bitterly with me”?
However, Ruth would not hear of letting her mother-in-law go out in search of food. She herself insisted that Naomi stay behind, while she went into the fields, like all the other poor, to gather barley left behind, forgotten or fallen aside during the cutting and binding of the barley. For the poor and needy were not forgotten during the harvest.
G‑d surely was with Ruth. The owner of the fields she happened to visit in search of food was none other than Boaz, or Ibtzan, the tenth of the judges of Israel who ruled after Joshua.
Boaz was a wealthy and very good-natured man. He greeted the woman in a most friendly way. Recognizing that she was not a common beggar, he ordered his workers to treat her with respect. Ruth got her full share of the leket (gleanings from the cutting), pe’ah (the corner of the field left uncut for the poor), and shikchah (forgotten sheaves in the field).
Ruth was overjoyed. Full of good cheer, she returned to Naomi and showed her the rich harvest she had brought. Ruth told her mother-in-law of the friendliness of the owner of the fields where she had searched for food. To her surprise, she learned that Boaz was a close relative of her late husband, and second in line as redeemer of Elimelech’s properties. The redeemer was also duty-bound to marry the widow of his deceased kinsman.
On Naomi’s advice, Ruth visited Boaz and entrusted her fate and that of her mother-in-law to him. Boaz was very much touched by this turn of events, and Ruth, with her gentle manner and nobility of character, found great favor in his eyes. Although he pointed out to his newly found relative that not he, but another and closer kinsman, was first in line to redeem Elimelech’s property, he promised to do what he could and stand ready to fulfill this obligation, if the other man refused.
This was exactly what happened. The man who was first in line did not claim his rights, and so Boaz not only redeemed the property of Elimelech, but married the modest and gentle young woman who had given up her royal palace to live as a Jewess.
Boaz (a descendant of the courageous prince Nachshon of the tribe of Judah, who was first to jump into the high waves of the Red Sea) was the most important person of the Jewish people in his days. He and Ruth were blessed with children, and Ruth lived long enough to see her great-grandson David become king of Israel.
Source: The Jewish Woman