THE HUMBLE GARB OF GREATNESS
Other works of the Prophets describe miracles, prophecies, and great historical events. The Sefer Rus, however, is a celebration of the ordinary. The emotions and pathos of the story - the loss of loved ones, isolation, obstinately pursuing an ideal, and resilience - are universal. On its pages unfold a familiar life: one of turmoil and tranquility, degradation and triumph. But to fully appreciate the true beauty of this story one must be attuned to its delicate nuances. There is a gentle theme that runs through it: an ordinary life can be sublimated and become extraordinary by absorbing the spirit of G-dliness and Torah.
The heroes of this saga are not only the nation's leaders and scholars, but also its common folk. We find Naomi, bereaved of both her husband and children, express the pain and anguish of her tormented soul. "Do not call me Naomi - pleasant one - call me Mara 'the embittered one,' for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me."1 Being a portion of Torah and therefore deserving of study, we learn from here that one is permitted to cry out in pain. The Torah allows for the expression of human emotion.
But her next sentence demonstrates her noble Jewish spirit, when she accepts her decree as being from Hashem.
We read about people going about their daily business. From these passages the sages derived the halachic basis of certain legal transactions2. We see menial labourers toiling in the fields, harvesting the crops. But instead of coarse language, we hear them greet each other with the name of Hashem on their lips3. The story bursts forth with acts of kindness. We see a mutually-loving and loyal relationship between mother and daughter-in-law; the dignified and respectful manner in which Boaz dispenses charity to his poor relatives; and the kindness of Rus, to both her mother-in-law and later to Boaz, by choosing him over much younger suitors. The townsfolk did not merely mumble a Mazel Tov when they entered a simcha (as is so often done today!). Upon Boaz's betrothal to Rus, the townsfolk present at the ceremony recited this lengthy, original rendition:
All the people at the gate and the elders answered, "We are witnesses! May Hashem make the woman who is entering your house be like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel. May you prosper in Ephras and establish a name [for yourself] in Beis Lechem. And may your house be like the house of Peretz, whom Tamar bore to Yehuda - through the offspring which G-d will grant you by this young woman." 4
Similarly, after Rus bore a son, a woman said to Naomi:
"Blessed is Hashem, Who has not denied you a redeemer today! May his name be established in Israel. He will revive your soul and sustain your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, gave birth to him."5
These acts of kindness may not seem to be of earth shattering import, but besides the warm feeling that a reader has upon reading them, more importantly, these minute acts of compassion were deemed worthy of inclusion in the Divine script.
This itself is one of the lessons of Rus. Imagine you lived in the time of Rus and lived in Boaz's neighbourhood. And a relative of your's from Yerushalayim dropped in for a visit. He asks you, "What's new in town?" Would you reply, "You know what! Boaz invited a poor woman to eat together with him, and he gave her some toasted grain!" To us this is a Jewish behavioural norm: neither extraordinary nor newsworthy. Yet the Torah describes this, and other acts, in detail to demonstrate that if we live our day-to-day, mundane lives according to the Torah, it is of monumental importance. Shmuel Hanavi penned this seemingly minor detail in the book of Rus to impress upon us that every small act of kindness and decency is worthy of inclusion in the eternal Torah and is infinitely precious before Hashem.
Rabbi Yitzchak said, "The Torah teaches us [by detailing the kindness of Boaz to Rus] that when a person does a mitzvah [such as an act of kindness and charity to one's fellow man], he should do it with a fully joyous heart. For if Boaz had known that Hashem would write about him, 'He handed her parched grain, and she ate was satisfied and left over' 6, he would have fed her fattened calves."
Rabbi Levi said, "In the past, a person would do a mitzvah and the prophet would write it. Now that there are no prophets, when a person performs a mitzvah who writes it? Now, Eliyahu the prophet and Mashiach chronicle [the deeds of men of all generations] and Hashem signs it."7 At times we may feel that our uneventful lives do not amount to much. But just as Boaz and Rus's seemingly insignificant acts of kindness planted the seeds which later heralded the birth of King David and, ultimately, Mashiach, so too, each of us in our small way, in our private lives, are also rectifying the world and bringing it closer the ultimate redemption.
Naomi's life clearly illustrates this point. Naomi viewed herself as utterly useless and empty.8 But as the tale of Rus reveals, Naomi, whose name means sweet, fully lived up to her name. Naomi's character was so sweet and attractive, Rus was drawn to her like a magnet. The verses make clear that Rus's willingness to convert to Judaism was not based on her intellectual assessment of the truths of Judaism alone. Rather it was Naomi's persona that Rus found so compellingly appealing.
When Naomi attempted to dissuade Rus from following her, Rus adamantly replied, "Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back from following you. For where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your G-d is my G-d. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May Hashem do this to me - and more! - if anything but death separates me from you!"9
It was not merely Hashem and the Jewish people that Rus wished to embrace. Rus wanted to bond with Naomi's G-d and Naomi's people. So while Naomi lamented, "Hashem has set me empty," her life was far from it. The fact is, it was Naomi who orchestrated Rus's conversion and marriage, which directly led to the birth of the ancestor of Mashiach.
After the birth of Rus's son, Oved, Naomi took the child, held it in her bosom and became his nurse. Then the neighbourhood woman came and joyously proclaimed, "A son is born to Naomi!"10 Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen states a principle that whatever is written in the Torah is true, not only in the narrative sense, in that those comments were actually made, but is actually intrinsically true. The cunning remarks of Lavan and the crude scoffing of Pharaoh could not have been recorded by the holy Torah had their statements not been intrinsically true. Therefore, if the Torah writes that the people said Naomi was the mother of Oved, then that is the actual truth. The Torah also deemed Naomi his true mother.
CHILDREN OF A SPIRITUAL KIND
While Noami's motherhood can be attributed to her raising the young Oved, it can be understood on a deeper level as well. A childless person lives on a different plane, a more spiritual dimension, than most. While everyone knows the fruit of one's spiritual labor is reserved for the World to Come, many are blessed with a foretaste of those sweet fruits even in this life. And those fruits are one's children. As we find the Torah likens offspring to the fruits of the vine and the olive.11 Those precious fruits link us to our sense of eternity and provide a tangible intimation of the rewards awaiting us in the next world. One who lacks children lacks the physical support system that was designed to make the Divine service a naturally joyous experience.12 On the contrary, it is not surprising to find Noami's bitter, self deprecating sentiments echoed by anyone faced with similar life circumstances:
Rabbi Yehuda said, When a person leaves this world without children he cries from pain and anguish.
But the Midrash continues:
Hashem comforts him and says, "My child, why do you cry? Is it because you did not bear fruit in this world? Your fruit is greater than children." He asks, "Ribbono Shel Olam, what fruit did I bear?" Hashem replies, "Your good deeds are your offspring."13
Because the physically childless perform their life mission under superhuman conditions, their reward likewise transcends the physical world.
Precisely because this thought is so difficult to internalise, it is a recurring theme in the words of the Yeshayahu Hanavi:
Let not the barren one say, "Behold I am a shrivelled tree." For thus says Hashem to the barren ones... who choose what I desire and grasp my covenant tightly. "In My house and within My walls I will give them a place of honour and renown, which is better than sons and daughters; eternal renown I will give them, which will never be ended."14
"Sing out O barren one, who has not given birth; break out into glad song and be jubilant, O one who had no labor pains, for the children of the desolate wife outnumber the children of the populated wife" says Hashem.15
The Chasam Sofer explains that these verses demonstrate that there are two distinct types of children: physical and spiritual.16 Whereas the barren may not have physical children, they are by no means childless. Parents who are physically childless bring down souls from heaven just as their friends who push strollers do. These spiritual children are created through their parents' steadfast service to Hashem, despite their constant indescribable pain and humiliation. Such souls are so lofty they cannot be contained in a corporeal form, which is why the prophet says they are "better than sons and daughters" - they are greater than their physical counterparts. Each such spiritual child, says the Chasam Sofer, "equals tens of thousands of physical children born with flesh and blood."
In yet another vision, Yeshayahu Hanavi depicts a scene from the time of the future redemption, which at first glance defies comprehension:
And you will say in your heart, "Who has begotten these? For I have been bereaved and alone, an exile and a wanderer - so who has reared these? Behold, I have been left by myself; where are these from?"
For thus says Hashem: "Behold I will raise My hand towards nations, and will hoist My banner towards peoples, and they will bring your children in their arms, and your daughters will be carried on their shoulders... Then you will know that I am Hashem, and those who put their hope in Me shall not be ashamed."17
Is it possible that a mother can be unaware that she bore children?
The Shomer Emunim writes that these verses deal with the spiritual children discussed above. "When, unfortunately, one is a companion to pain and misfortune - owing to childlessness or any other trying circumstance - this is often accompanied with feelings of inadequacy and a sense of lacking any constructive accomplishments in life. One may feel hopeless, broken, unnecessary and useless. Even one's prayers, Torah study, and good deeds begin to feel hollow and appear pitifully meagre."
But what one may fail to see, explains the Shomer Emunim, is that "for every pain which passes over a Jewish soul, especially at times when one feels disconnected to Hashem and as if He is neglecting him, and yet one accepts this without complaint or anger against Hashem - and all the more so if it is accepted with a slight amount of love and joy - this creates a glory to Hashem of the highest magnitude. In fact, the simplest person at the lowest spiritual level can accomplish more under these circumstances than the service of a great tzaddik. Many 'lost souls' that have not found rectification since the beginning of creation, are now rectified through this supreme level of faith."
"When Mashiach comes, Hashem will reveal to them the myriad children they created. They will stream to such a person from all sides of the earth, just as children come to embrace their beloved parents after a long separation. He will stand agape with wonder looking at these beautiful creations, 'Who has begotten me these? I was bereaved and alone. They certainly cannot be mine.' But he or she will be considered the true parents of these thousands of souls."18
The book of Rus describes a natural world, as seen through the limited eyesight of mortal men. In that world, Naomi thought she lived a bitter and wasted life. But little did she know that from the vantagepoint of heaven, a dimension that transcends all physical laws, she actually was the grandmother of the king of Israel.
LIFE BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN
The story of Rus does not speak about angels or prophets who reveal any earth-shattering events. Nor do Boaz and Rus declare the royal destiny of their future son. The heavenly curtains descend and veil any inkling to the goings on of the heavenly realms. Instead, the backdrop of the book of Rus presents a familiar slice of Jewish life. It details seemingly ordinary daily activities, from the labourers' greeting to the townsfolk blessings. It is this limited vantagepoint of man, not the infinite view of G-d, which the perspective of the book of Rus is based. From a human point of view, life is often dry and ordinary or - as was the case with Naomi - sometimes even dark.
Perhaps it is precisely for this reason the book of Rus is read on Shavuos. On this day we merited to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai, through a miraculous revelation amidst thunder and lightning. But from that moment on, we can no longer seek Hashem amidst the fire of miracles, the thunderous sounds of prophecy, or the whirlwind of momentous historical events. For the most part, it is in the quiet, day-to-day life, where we can find our personal pathways to Hashem.19
When Hashem spoke directly to the Jewish nation on Mount Sinai, they felt a rapture so intense that it caused their souls to momentarily depart from their bodies.20 They epitomised a state known as d'veikus - the ultimate blissful experience of connecting with the Divine. Achieving d'veikus is one of life's primary goals; as the Mesillas Yesharim writes, writes, "all of one's actions should be motivated to drawing near to the Blessed One, until he is pulled to Him as is metal to a magnet."21
If so, should not the thrust of our efforts be spent seeking those activities that provide immediate spiritual satisfaction? Isn't spending hours upon hours in sublime meditation the path which leads to true d'veikus? In truth, however, humbly serving Hashem in an ordinary fashion in an ordinary world, through the voluminous minutiae of halacha, is what breaks the barriers that stand between us and our Creator. This is what leads to d'veikus.22
THE DANGERS OF D'VEIKUS
To achieve d'veikus is one of the highest aims of Divine service. But as the book of Rus points out, it can also be a potentially dangerous weapon. The ecstatic experience of d'veikus can also take the form of shochad - bribery - against our Divine obligations. For example, one immersed in Torah study may find it so pleasurable, that he is tempted to look in a sefer during chazaras hashatz, something prohibited by Halacha. In such a case, the d'veikus generated from the love of Torah results in its own defect. (Needless to say, this example was not intended as an excuse to disdain one seen possessing this relatively minor flaw. One who possesses the love of Torah to the extent that he has such a temptation itself attests to his spiritual stature. If only this author merited having such evil inclinations...)
At times, performing Hashem's will requires foregoing the act most conducive for d'veikus: Music during sefira may be quite uplifting and inspiring, but if halacha forbids it, then adherence to halacha is the true service of Hashem.
The dangers of d'veikus was actualised in one of the most tragic figures in the story of Rus: Orpah. After the death of her husband, she began following Naomi back to the land of Israel, presumably contemplating embracing Judaism. At that historic moment, she stood at the threshold of eternity. But while Rus remained adamant in remaining with Naomi, Orpah returned home.
The prophet concludes her life story here. One would imagine that this precious soul who came so close to Judaism, would devote the remainder of her life to goodness, serving Hashem faithfully as a righteous gentile. But the sages relate the sad end of her saga: the day she parted from Naomi she plunged from the heights of spiritual greatness to the lowest depths of moral depravity.
Perhaps her erratic behaviour can be understood in the following light. As anyone who merited the experience can testify, being in the close presence of a spiritually elevated person is one of the greatest pleasures in life. When one enters his proximity, sometimes one feels like having stepped into an elevator since within moments one feels like one is being lifted effortlessly to dizzying heights.23 But therein lurks a hidden danger, which can be termed the Geichazi syndrome.24 Being in constant contact with a holy person risks becoming an intoxicating experience. The vicarious spiritual contentment of living through one's rebbe can sometimes blanket any feelings of inadequacy for one's personal failings.
Orpah experienced the joy of a Jewish life. She appreciated the true love of a Jewish husband, the pleasantness of a Shabbos table, and felt inseparably drawn to her mother-in-law's holy personality. She fell short committing herself to the responsibilities that Judaism entails. But her brief encounter with Judaism gave her a taste of d'veikus. Merely subscribing to the seven Noahide laws now appeared to her dry and spiritually unfulfilling. She wanted a quick fix, the spiritual "high" which only Judaism can give. As she could no longer get it through holiness, she attempted to duplicate the ecstasy by throwing herself into the excesses of depravity.
In the secular world, the search for spirituality has become a popular trend. But "spirituality" does not necessarily mean to them what it means to us. To them, it may represent the nadir of hedonistic pleasure seeking. The Hollywood pop star who goes to Kabbala classes wants the best of both worlds: to retain all the pleasures this world has to offer, together with the ecstasy that only spirituality can provide. Kabbala is the perfect forum for connecting with G-d on your own terms: no commitment, no responsibility, just an exhilarating soul-soaring thrill ride.
THE MEANING OF RUS
What is the significance of the name Rus? R' Yochanan said: For she merited that David descended from her, who "sated" the Holy One, Blessed be He, with songs and praises.25 Rav Dan Segal asked, What did Rus do in particular to be deserving of bearing a descendant who was capable of satiating Hashem? He answered that it was in merit of her determination to cling to Hashem, despite all the obstacles that stood in her path. Naomi attempted to dissuade her to return home; she had no marriage prospects awaiting her; no promising future to look forward to. But she stood steadfast despite all odds.26 Serving Hashem in the face of insurmountable difficulties is the greatest human quality, and in that merit Rus bore a David. Her act of devotion without the aid of d'veikus, brought into the world the sweet singer of Israel, who satiated his Creator with his sublime songs of d'veikus to Hashem.
1 Rus 1:20
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