The Book of Ruth
Excerpted with the permission of CCAR Press from The Five Scrolls: Hebrew Texts, English Translations, Introductions and New Liturgies, Herbert N. Bronstein and Albert H. Friedlander, eds.
A "Nightingale Song"
Ruth is the nightingale song of love and trust in our tradition. Out of the biblical text, there rises a lyrical tale told to perfection, simplicity blending with profound meaning. A song moves through the lives presented in the text.
Perhaps the self‑same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn . . .
(John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, st. 6)
Perhaps the greatest line in Keats' poetry, though not the most accurate one, it does bring us into the heart of an experience which still dominates our covenant of marriage, our treatment of strangers, our reception of proselytes. Ruth is a book for all times, whether written in post‑exilic days or based upon very old oral traditions. It is set in the time of the judges--not the best ones, if we assign it to the period of Gideon and Samson--and it attempts to define the rights of widows and aliens within a society fallen upon hard times.
The Book of Leviticus comes to life here, with its injunctions to leave part of the harvest for the needy, and with all of its concern and compassion for the underprivileged within the society. The text contains complexities; yet these fade away against the simple message of a Divine plan fulfilling itself among decent people: Ruth, Naomi and Boaz all occupy the stage in turn, and God's purpose is fulfilled through their actions.
We read the Scroll of Ruth on Shavuot, the time of the Giving of the Law. The authority for this is found in Soferim (xiv, 3‑5) an eighth-century Palestinian text; and the rabbis find many reasons why Ruth and Shavuot are linked: harvest time, the Giving of the Torah and its acceptance as we see it in the life of Ruth and David, the offspring of Ruth, who died on Shavuot; and it is a happy book for a season of joy.
The Story Opens: A Low Point
The opening paragraph, with a marvelous economy of words, sets the stage: the characters are presented, the situation is clear. Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons become refugees in an alien land, losing all rights and status in fleeing from a famine--a major disaster in their homeland. Mahlon and Chilion have a role to play in the story. "Sick" and "Ailing," as their names describe them, they are still paired against one another. Mahlon's name will survive through Ruth; Chilion disappears from view.