Shavuot 5776 - Ladies Learning Programme

 A Shiur by Malca Wacks 

Megillas Rus is the story of a Moavi princess who becomes a Jewish peasant. In order to understand her better, I had a look at some of the archaeological evidence from Moav around the time of the Shoftim.

Firstly, we need to understand that the kingdoms on the East Bank of the Yarden during the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age were not nation-states – certainly not to the extent that Israel was to become. They were more tribal kingdoms. Settlement in Moav was a risky venture due to the rainfall. To the north, in Ammon, there was almost always enough rainfall to guarantee a decent production of cereal grains, fruit and vegetable. To the south, in Edom, there was almost never enough rainfall to achieve a stable agricultural environment. Moav, had many good years, but was unreliable. Yet, we see sedentarization in Moav becoming increasingly more common throughout the period.

So, in the absence of reliable rainfall, how was this achieved? The best, and most plausible answer was the formation of cooperative alliances and supra-tribal polities. Leaving out the most obvious contemporary sources, we can turn to an object called the Mesha Stele, which was found in Jordan, and dates to the time of Melachim Beis. In it, there is actually a description of a pan-Moabite dynastic kingdom, which had clearly been in power for centuries. It can be assumed that this dynasty was the same one that gave birth to Rus, albeit several generations earlier.
The concept of a dynasty is much more common in a settled society than in a nomadic one, which means it is quite possible that the first generation to settle also founded the dynasty discussed in the Mesha Stele. Turning back to the Navi, we are aware of one Moavi King in the Late Bronze Age who created a large alliance which eventually unified against Bnei Yisrael: Eglon. He united Ammon and Edom with Moav, against Bnei Yisrael. While that campaign failed, and Eglon was assassinated, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the alliance survived, and, indeed, supported a good deal of sedentarization which was not possible before.

There is some debate over who populated the settlements. While there is no distinct cultural break in the archaeological record to indicate an invasion or mass immigration, there is an increase in population, indicating at least a noticeable migration. There is a theory that in the Late Bronze Age (a period covering Yehoshua and part of Shoftim), there was a Peasants Revolt to the West of the Jordan, which lead to widespread socio-economic collapse, causing many people, especially the previously affluent, to flee to Moav.
We are taught that Elimelech fled Israel during a time of famine. Most commentaries say that it was to avoid giving tzedaka. The Kol Yehuda takes a more lenient view, saying he left in order to avoid seeing the rampant corruption which he was unable to stop. Both of these views fit in well with the idea of a Peasants Revolt. However, that would suggest that Elimelech was far from the only affluent Jew to leave Israel for Moav. This hugely compounds the aveirah of Machlon and Kilion marrying out, but also makes it that much more objectively impressive for them to marry princesses.
Moav would have been the logical place to flee. Both Avraham and Yaakov fled to Egypt in times of famine, but no Jew would make that mistake again. Moav, despite its unpredictable rainfall, did not appear to suffer from either of these famines, or the one referenced in Megillas Rus. There is a small range of mountains to the east of the Dead Sea which might have affected the weather patterns sufficiently to protect Moav from famines afflicting Israel. It would be interesting to study. In any case, either due to that range of mountains or strong trade with Ammon, Moav offered a safe haven from famine, and it seems likely that a large number of affluent Jews sought refuge there.

To a nation still strongly aware of its former enslavement in Egypt, Moav would likely seem quite hospitable. For the majority of antiquity, the entire region was caught in a cultural tug-of-war between Egypt and Mesopotamia, which would not end until the collapse of the Persian Empire. The Mesha Stele references Moavi gods Chemosh and Ashtar, both of which have clear equivalents in the Mesopotamian pantheon – namely Shamash and Ishtar. This, even more than normal cultural indicators, such as pot shape and artistic motifs, implies the existence of a stronger cultural tie with Mesopotamia than with Egypt. In the cultural tug-of-war over Moav, Mesopotamia had clearly won, making it a more pleasant place for Jews to settle than more Egypt friendly places, such as the Mettani kingdom to the north of Ammon.
Eglon’s influence spread the entire length of Israel’s eastern border, and the Midrash tells us that Rus was his daughter. As the daughter of a man powerful enough to found a dynasty, she would have had the best of everything, and in the true style of new monarchies, she would have been educated to act exactly as Eglon imagined the ideal princess to act. One feature missing from the archaeological record of Eglon’s period is any record of palaces or other monumental architecture. Eglon’s court, while encouraging sedentarization in its subjects, was almost certainly mobile, and Rus would have been taught how to carry herself like a princess in a variety of surroundings. In short, she was no princess in a tower.

I believe that it was Rus’s innate regal manner which drew Boaz’s eye, as much as her unique tznius. For a peasant gleaning in his field to not only conduct herself tzniusly, but to maintain her posture and regal bearing throughout the process would have made her stand out like the Crown Jewels on a beach.
We’re taught that Shmuel wrote Megillas Rus to clarify David’s lineage, and ensure that everyone knew it was ok that Boaz married Rus. But Hashem chose Rus to be the Ima Shel Malchus, not just because of her piety and tznius, but because, she was herself royal.
A convert, when they go to mikvah, leaves certain things behind. Childhood beliefs turn to mist and blood relations turn to friends, but it is vital to remember that a ger or giyores is the same person before and after mikvah – and that is a good thing. No matter how profane her upbringing or how strong her new tie to Klal Yisrael, Rus would always be royal.
And that is why Hashem chose her to be the Ima Shel Malchus. Boaz, as head of the Sanhedrin, brought the Torah and the yichus to mix, but Bnei Yisrael had no dynasty. A successful king of Israel would needs roots of royalty from outside of Klal Yisrael. Rus’s conversion cut her ties with her father Eglon – indeed, so strong was her kesher with Hashem that she converted to the religion of her father’s assassin! - but what she had learned of kingship in her father’s court stayed with her, and was part of the foundation of the family with raised David Hamelech.
We see that Boaz was aware of her royal background when he chose her. When they sat down to a meal together in the field, Boaz taught her to dip her bread in vinegar. The Ibn Ezra points out that this was a common farmhand method to avoid sunstoke. Shimon Halevi says that Boaz knew Rus would be unaware of the practice after having been raised in the affluence of the Moavi shade, and he wanted to help her.

Also noteworthy is the first time Boaz spoke to Rus. He told her to keep gleaning in his field and that she wouldn’t be bothered, but the only thing he actually offered her was the water his men had drawn. Malbim comments that the water was from a superior well, far away from the field, and it took a good deal of effort to get the water to the field. Without it, Rus would have experienced a great deal of difficulty, even to draw inferior water from the closer well.
In yiddishkeit, water is a widely accepted metaphor for Torah, and in that context, this offer was profound. Boaz saw a tznius, regal convert in his field, and he offered to teach her Torah. I am fortunate enough to know more than a few converts, and I can tell you, there are some conversions which are harder than others. If a ger is lucky enough to find a strong beis din, with a good teaching infrastructure and dedicated time, gerus can be, if not easy, at least enlightening and empowering.

But there are many places in the world (and in history) where such an established infrastructure was not available. The ger could be alone seeking out the torah, trying to learn halacha, mitzos and Hebrew with relatively little guidance – or even worse, conflicting guidance. Both paths, I’H, end in the mikvah, with the lost neshama finally coming home, but the two journeys will be markedly different.

The Iggeres Shmuel compares Rus to Avraham, saying that Rus’s merit on converting may be even greater than Avraham’s because while Avraham had to be told to leave his father’s house, Rus left of her own volition. However Avraham had to start his gerus from scratch. He had a strong relationship with Hashem but no people to teach him how to express it.

Boaz was the leader of the Sanhedrin and gadol hador. He knew all that Rus wanted to learn, and with his offer of water, he was offering to teach her. The response of this former princess was to proclaim herself unworthy. She still felt the taint of her idolatrous upbringing. But, Boaz, the head of the Sanhedrin, assured her that she, complete with her past, was worthy of all the Torah he could teach. She responded “Nichamtani”- “You have comforted me.”
Boaz’s position as head of the Sanhedrin was also clearly picked for the creation of the Davidic dynasty. Only a talmid chacham could havemerited to marry Rus because only a talmid chacham would have known at the time that it is permitted for female Moavi convert to marry a Jewish, even though male Moavi converts may not marry Jewish women. The fact that even Rus didn’t know this halacha when she converted showed the depth of her devotion to Hashem. She thought converting would deprive her of the chance to have children, and chose to convert anyway.

But for her, that was only one of the many objective reasons not to convert. Rus’s life before Judaism was one of opulence and respect, and her first months of Judaism were marked by poverty and disdain. Those who would have been her inferiors in her previous life now looked down on her. Still she chose Judaism, and she chose it with her eyes open.

It is interesting to look at another woman who chose Judaism – Esther. She faced a similar contrast: wealth, opulence, and respect – or a Jewish life. Esther had less choice than Rus, yet her preferences were clear in every phase of her journey to the secular monarchy. Both women had the choice, and both chose Judaism. And both women were zoche to be indirectly responsible for the building of a Beis Hamikdash. Rus’s great great grandson built the first beia hamikdash, and Esther’s son gave the command which allowed the building of the second.

There are many more corollaries worth examining between Rus and Esther. A primary theme in Esther is in the hidden hand of Hashem. In Rus, the hand was not so hidden: though presented as “coincidence”, Hashem’s guiding hand was clear as day:
It “just so happened” that Boaz’s wife had just died when Rus and Naomi returned to Efrat. It “just so happened” that Rus found herself in Boaz’s field. It “just so happened” that Boaz saw Rus on his first trip back to the fields after he rose from mourning. It “just so happened” that the Sanhedrin had just discussed the laws regarding a Moavi giyores being allowed to marry a Jew. It “just so happened” that Boaz ran into Ploni Almoni the morning he’d decided to marry Rus. These were obviously not just coincidences. I think it is true of every shidduch ever made that the “coincidences” which led to the shidduch, when viewed in retrospect, were clearly the miraculous hand of Hashem.

But the hand of Hashem did not need to be hidden in Rus. It was hidden in Esther because Hashem was putting the cure in place before the disease even became apparent – Esther was firmly ensconced in the Palace before Haman rose to enough power to harm the Jews. In the case of Megillas Rus, the illness itself caused the cure. We are told that Megillas Rus takes place during the times of the Shoftim, but multiple times in Shoftim it says:
בימים ההם אין מלך בישראל איש הישר בעיניו יעשה – In those days, there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.

The time of the Shoftim was a time of relative morality – and it was that culture in which Elimelech was so enmeshed that he thought it was ok to take his wealth away from the starving masses during a time of famine. If Bnei Yisroel had been able to maintain a true moral compass and adherence to the Torah without a king, Elimelech would never have gone to Moav. Rus would not have been exposed to Judaism, she would never have converted or married Boaz,and David Hamelech would never have been born.
A large difference is that in Esther, the marriage was a regrettable necessity at the beginning of the story, whereas in Rus, the marriage was the culmination of all the hashgacha pratis in the megillah. The relative attitude is clear when you compare the two men. In both cases, the megillah shows how the man acted while intoxicated. Of Achashverosh it is said:
כטוב לב מלך היין – the heart of the king was merry with wine.
Of Boaz, after his feast on the threshing floor, it is stated:
וייטב לבו – his heart was merry. These are both expressions for drunkenness.
Achashverosh, in his intoxication and least inhibited state, called for the woman he should have respected most in the world to parade naked in front of a roomful of equally drunk men. Boaz, in his intoxication and least inhibited state, went to sleep, and when confronted with one of the most beautiful, vulnerable, and least respected women in the city, decided to marry her, blessed her, and woke up early in the morning to protect her reputation.
It is little wonder then that the children of the unions should have been so markedly different. The Jewish people fondly remember, and are grateful to King Darius of Persia, son of Esther and Achashverosh, who allowed the Jews to build the second beis hamikdash, but in the end, he still married out. Naomi and Esther were both given the pain of seeing their sons marry non-Jewish women, giving up the possibility of Jewish grandchildren. Rus, on the other hand, married a tzadik - a good man. (It is noteworthy that of Achashverosh’s heart , the megillah say it was כטוב – “like good”, but of Boaz’s heart it say וייטב – “and it was good”). Rus’s son Oved married a Jew, and gave Rus Jewish grandchildren. According to Bava Basra, Rus lived to see King Shlomo on the throne. Now that’s nachas!

Naomi, through her merit in bringing about the shidduch, was allowed to raise Oved, so that she too could share in the nachas he brought. When Naomi and Rus first returned to Efrat, Naomi told the women of the city not to call her Naomi, pleasant one, but Marah, bitter one, because she had lost her children. But when the Oved was given to Naomi, it was like she has a grandchild, and the women of the city again called her Naomi.
The people of Efrat welcomed the news of the marriage of Boaz’s and Rus’, blessing Rus to be like Rochel and Leah, who raised tzadikim despite being raised themselves by a father who was as evil as Eglon. She was also blessed to be like Tamar, another woman who actively pursued the mitzvah of yibum.
Oved’s conception was a tikun for the yibum-like cases on both sides of his family tree. On Boaz’s side, Tamar had to trick Yehuda into yibum. Far worse, on Rus’s side, we are taught that the last spark of goodness in the family tree was Lot, because the entire nation of Moav only came about because Lot’s daughters felt the obligation to reproduce. That spark was carried, hidden through the generations, to Rus. Now, I don’t want to equate Tamar’s mitzvah with the incestuous acts of Lot’s daughters, but on two points they are similar. In both cases, the mother was only trying to conceive, and in neither case, did they inform the father what was actually going on.

Lot, we know, was intoxicated beyond the point of consent, and Yehuda thought that he was interacting with a stranger he would never see again. Neither of the fathers were acting for the sake of procreation. They were not consulted.
Rus, however, made the entire matter Boaz’s decision. She presented him with the situation, but maintained her distance. She provided him with the opportunity to make his own decision in the matter. Especially given the distance of the relationship between Machlon and Boaz, he was under no halachic obligation to carry out yibum with Rus. Because the decision was entirely his, he got the entire zechus for the mitzvah. Unlike Moav or Peretz, Oved was actively wanted by both his parents prior to his conception.
His mother, the princess in peasants clothing, gave him regality which no born Jew could provide, and his father, the head of the Sanhedrin, gave him kedusha that no monarch in the world had, and it was with the perfect synthesis of those two traits that Hashem founded the dynasty of David, Shlomo, and, I’H, Mashiach, b’mherah, b’yameinu.

Mon, 26/06/17 | 2 Tammuz 5777

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