Jewish communities have a custom of reading the Book of Ruth on the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It is not an obvious selection. The Talmudist Rabbi Zeira asked, “This scroll does not contain the laws of impurity or purity, prohibitions or permissions. So why was it written?”
The book tells the story of Ruth, a Moabite princess, and her difficult journey to conversion to Judaism. The 11th-century biblical commentator Rabbi Tobiah ben Eliezer compiled a Midrash commentary, Lekach Tov, about this story, and the following are the inferences I have drawn from that work.
1. Before a new undertaking, let go of the old one
“She left the place where she had been living … to the land of Judah” (Ruth 1:7). It wasn’t just the land of the Jews that she was advancing to, but to the traditions of Judaism. In order to do that, she first needed to cast aside the beliefs that she had before.
2. Sacrifices need to be made
“And they set out on the road” (Ruth 1:7). After losing their husbands, Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, walked barefoot. Following the right path does not always come easy. Ruth was willing to make sacrifices and endure inconveniences for what she believed in.
3. How you are perceived doesn’t define you
At first, Ruth was undoubtedly an outsider — but she did not let that define her and carried on with her plan to join the Jewish nation. With Naomi at her side, it is said “… the two went on until they reached Bethlehem” (Ruth 1:19). Naomi and Ruth eventually were seen as equals in their faith.
4. Accomplish the most you can, while you can
“So may the Lord do to me and so may He continue” (Ruth 1:17). Ruth committed to doing what mitzvot she could during her life. In eternity we reap the rewards for the mitzvot we observe in our lives — but only in our lifetime can we perform them.
5. Seek and heed the advice of the righteous
“I would like to go to the fields …” (Ruth 2:2). Ruth would only go to the fields with the permission of her mother-in-law. Naomi was a pious and charitable woman “whose ways were nice and pleasant” (Ruth Rabbah 2:5). Ruth saw in her a spiritual guide whose advice should not only be heard but also followed.
6. Taking action is paramount
“She got up again to glean” (Ruth 2:15). Ruth wasn’t idle and she worked hard to survive and also prosper. As important as knowledge and understanding may be, we are influenced by our actions and what we do will shape our future
7. Let kindness lead the way
The entire Book of Ruth is a lesson in kindness and its long-lasting effects. Ruth bestowed boundless kindness on Naomi and others and she was rewarded for this. Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of King David and the ancestress of the Kingdom of Judah.
The Torah is a gift that must be cultivated to be of value. The story of Ruth is the story of a woman who gathers the grains of her faith with devotion and kindness. In the words of Ruth’s descendant, King Solomon (Proverbs 3:17), the Torah’s ways “are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.”
Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin is outreach director of Chabad Tucson.