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Ruth the Moabite and the Merit of Converts

With her great kindness and devotion, Ruth redeemed all around her: Elimelech’s sin was sweetened, Naomi, who did not protest, was comforted by her son, and even Boaz merited in having a successor follow in his path * Despite their late joining, the covenant made at Mount Sinai also included the converts * In a deeper examination, the written Torah and prophecy belong more to the virtue of Israel, and the Oral Torah, which is constantly renewed, is fitting for converts

At one of the low points in the time of the Judges, when a severe famine struck the land, Elimelech and his family descended from Beit Lechem in Judea, to the land of Moab. Elimelech and his wife Naomi were among the most important descendants of a rich and highly privileged family from the tribe of Judah, from whom, according to the will of our ancestor Jacob to his sons, the king of Israel would arise. However, apparently, Elimelech, who remembered the civil wars and defeats against the enemies, despaired of the future of Israel, and when the land was struck with famine turned his back on the poor of his people, and in order to save his property, descended with his family to the land of Moab. Elimelech began his new life in Moab, marrying his sons Mahlon and Kiliyon with Ruth and Orpah, attributed to the royal family in Moab. However, luck did not shine a light on them, and within ten years Elimelech died, his sons who tried to continue his business became impoverished and died, and Naomi, who remained a bereaved and poor widow, decided to return to her abandoned home in Beit Lechem.

Out of their love for Naomi, her widowed brides thought of returning with her. Naomi hugged and kissed them, thanking them for the kindness they sought to do with her and the memory of the dead, however, out of responsibility for their future, she suggested they return to their parents’ home, get married, and start families. They raised their voices and wept and asked to go with her. Naomi explained to them that if they went with her, they would remain single widows until the day they died because there was no chance they would find a groom in Israel, and most probably they would not be willingly accepted because the family betrayed her people in times of famine. In Moab, on the other hand, successful women like themselves would be able to get married and start a family. Orpah kissed Naomi and returned to her home, but Ruth clung to her mother-in-law.

Naomi said unto Ruth, behold, your sister-in-law has returned unto her people; return again, and start a family for yourself. “But Ruth replied, ‘Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried’” (Ruth 1: 16-17).

Out of a sense of moral obligation to her poor mother-in-law, Ruth’s heart was opened to faith in God, the God of Israel, and she decided to convert and join Israel in an everlasting covenant, even if she was forced to remain a widow and poor until the day she died.

When she arrived in Beit Lechem, the funeral of Boaz’s wife, the Gadol HaDor (the most eminent leader of the generation) (Bava Batra 91a) took place. Apparently, when Naomi was a girl, she could have married Boaz, a relative of hers, but her parents chose Elimelech, who was considered more successful. Out of shame, Naomi wanted to return to her home secretly on the back streets of the city, on the road leading to the cemetery; however, at that exact moment, the funeral took place, and so it turned out that all the participants in the funeral passed by Naomi, returning defeated to her abandoned home. They remembered her wealth and lineage, how she had walked in the splendor of chariots and wore lavish clothes, and now her garments were worn, her face flushed with hunger, and together with a young non-Jewish woman accompanying her (Ruth Rabbah 3: 6). “Upon their arrival in Beit Lechem the entire city was in a tumult about them, and the women said: Is that Naomi?” She said to them: ‘Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara; as the Almighty has greatly embittered [hemar] me. I went full, and the Lord brought me back empty; why call me Naomi, and the Lord has afflicted me, and the Almighty has hurt me.’”

Naomi and Ruth were starving, but kept their dignity and refrained from knocking on the doors of the rich, asking for charity. Luckily for them, the days were the beginning of the barley harvest, and the Torah established a mitzvah to leave the poor leket, shicha’ah, and pe’ah (gleanings, forgotten produce, and the corners of the field), but going out for the gleaning, was a terrible humiliation for Naomi. Ruth the Moabite volunteered to go out to the unfamiliar land to gather the gifts of the poor. Unexpectedly, she came to Boaz’s field; the young men talked to her, and Boaz, noticing her modesty and kindness, out of fear that they would abuse her and take advantage of her weakness, asked her to continue to come and gather in his field. At the same time, he ordered the young men to give her from their food several measures of barley.

When Ruth returned to Naomi and told her that a man, Boaz, had treated her well, Naomi realized that perhaps their redemption would spring forth from him, for although Boaz was decades older than Ruth, he was related to her, and if he agreed to marry Ruth in somewhat of a yibbum (a form of levirate marriage), they would be able to give birth to a child from whom there would be a revival for her family. In her wisdom, Naomi devised a plan in which Ruth would express in the deepest and most courageous way, her desire to marry Boaz despite being many years older than her. However, they had a double problem. First, there was a doubt whether it was halachically permissible to marry a Moabite convert. Second, if it was a yibbum, then another person was closer than Boaz. After it was ruled that she was allowed to marry, and the same relative refused to do yibbum, Boaz married her.

“So Boaz married Ruth; she became his wife, and he cohabited with her. The LORD let her conceive, and she bore a son. And the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not withheld a redeemer from you today! May his name be perpetuated in Israel! He will renew your life and sustain your old age; for he is born of your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons. Naomi took the child and held it to her bosom. She became its foster mother, and the women neighbors gave him a name, saying, “A son is born to Naomi!”

Thus, with all her kindness and devotion, Ruth redeemed all those surrounding her: the sin of Elimelech who descended to Moab was sweetened; Naomi who did not protest, was comforted by the son of Boaz and Ruth; and even Boaz was redeemed, for he had thirty sons and all had died in his lifetime (Baba Batra 91a), but in Ruth’s merit, had a son who continued his legacy.

Many years passed, Boaz and Naomi were deceased, and our Sages said that God granted kindness to Ruth and prolonged her life greatly; she got to see David, her great-grandson, the savior of the people and founder in Jerusalem of the kingdom of Israel for generations, and even got to see Solomon sitting on his throne. And they would call her “the mother of Malchut (kingship),” and at festive occasions they would seat her in a dignified chair next to the king, and all knew that the royal family in Israel was redeemed and resurrected by the grace of this righteous convert grandmother (Kings 1: 2: 19; Baba Batra, 91b).

Giving of the Torah to Israel and to the Converts

When God made a covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, He also made a covenant with the people who would eventually convert. And, as Moshe said to Israel (Deuteronomy 29:13-14): “But it is not with you alone that I am making this covenant and this dread oath. I am making it both with those who are standing here with us today before God our Lord, and with those who are not yet here with us today.” From where do we know that the converts, who would convert in the future, were also included? The verse states: “And also with he who is not here with us this day” (Shavuot 39a).

Thus, even when Torah was given to Israel, it was determined that some of the peoples from the nations would join the people of Israel, and its great destiny to bring blessings to all the families of the earth.

Our Sages said (Tanchuma, Va’yak’hel 8) that therefore “the Torah was given in the desert, to teach us that just as the desert is free to all men, so too, the words of the Torah are free to all who desire to learn them… as it is said: “Which if a man do, he shall live by them: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18:5). It does not refer to priest, or Levite, or Israelite, but merely to man. Thus, ‘One law and one ordinance shall be both for you and for the stranger that sojourneth with you’ (Numbers 15:16). We also find that from Jethro the ger came forth great Torah sages who were blessed with Ruach ha-Kodesh (holy inspiration) and taught Torah to all of Israel.

Abraham our Father – The Father of Israel and the Converts

Avrahmam Avinu, who illuminated the light of faith and morality for the world, is both the father of Israel, and the father of the converts. For our Sages said that Avraham Avinu would convert the men, and our mother Sarah, would convert the women. And when they immigrated to Eretz Yisrael, they immigrated together with “the soul they made in Haran” (Genesis 12: 5; Genesis Rabbah 39:14; Avot De’Rebbe Natan 12).

The Beginning of His work in Converting Gerim

Moreover, the beginning of the work of Avraham and Sarah was in the conversion of gerim. Our Sages said (Avodah Zara 9a) that when Avraham Avinu reached the age of 52, the two thousand years of chaos of the world ended, and the two thousand years of Torah began. The expression of this was that in the exact same year, Avraham and Sarah began to convert gerim. Only out of their work in conversion, later on, when Avraham Avinu was 75 years old, was he commanded to immigrate to the Land of Israel, and was told that from their seed, a people would arise who would inherit the land, and bring blessing to the entire world.

Israel and the Converts – Virtue and Choice

Although the gerim convert by the power of their own choice – and no human decision expresses the power of choice more than conversion – after the conversion, it becomes clear that there was already a sacred spark in the soul of the gerim, and by its power, they could awaken to choose to convert. As our Sages said (Shabbat 146a) that the root of the souls of the gerim stood at Mount Sinai.

Written Torah and Oral Torah

If we delve deeper, we find that the children of Israel are more connected to Written Torah and prophecy in which the divine side and the segulah (unique virtue) of Israel are more prominent, that they are able to absorb the supreme divine revelation. Whereas gerim are more connected to the Oral Torah, in which the side of chiddush (innovation) that results from man’s choice, is more revealed. Moshe Rabbeinu the greatest of the prophets, who received the Torah at Sinai, had one of the most certain lineages in Israel, and the prophets who followed him, were mainly descendants of pure Israeli ancestry. On the other hand, Jethro, who converted, had the privilege of renewing his legal system in Israel, in the sense of Oral Torah. The same holds true for Rabbi Akiva, the greatest Sage of the Oral Torah, who was the son of Yosef the Ger. The inspiration that gerim receive is mainly Ruach ha-Kodesh, which is revealed through the educational efforts made by choice.

By combining the two forces together – Israel and the converts, Segulah and Bechira (choice), Nevuah (prophecy) and Ruach ha-Kodesh, Written Torah and Oral Torah – the Torah is revealed in its richest light and blessing, and Israel is able to bring blessing to all nations and perfect the world in the kingdom of Shadai (see, in Rebbe Tzadok, Yisrael Kedoshim 6: 34-52).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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