Why Was this Megilla Written?
DAYS OF DELIVERANCE: ESSAYS ON PURIM AND HANUKKAH
by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Shiur #1: Why Was This Megilla Written?
Megillat Ruth is a not a very dramatic book. Its modest account
begins with the journey of a family from
In the ensuing account, Ruth manages to procure food for herself and Naomi from Boaz, a wealthy landowner. After physical survival is ensured, Ruth approaches Boaz at night in his fields with the intent of marriage so as to ensure continuity for Naomis family and land. Boaz assures Ruth that he, as a relative of Naomis dead husband, will take responsibility for her remarriage. The story ends happily with the birth of a child to Ruth and Boaz.
Why is Megillat Ruth included in the Bible? Biblical books are generally included in the Tanakh because of their theological or moral message or due to their historical impact. For example, the books of classical prophecy contain perpetual and resounding messages of moral and religious integrity, and the book of Esther offers a dramatic account of Am Yisraels salvation from a royal decree of genocide. The book of Ruth, however, does not appear to contain an obvious eternal religious message or overt historical significance. At first glance, this serene, rather uneventful account of Naomis return to Bethlehem with her daughter-in-law Ruth, and their successful bid to obtain food and a husband for Ruth, seems no more than a nice, if unremarkable, narrative.
Megillat Ruth: A Book of Chesed
The Midrash addresses this very question:
R. Zeira said: This Megilla does not contain [laws of] impurity or purity, or prohibitions or permits, so why was it written? To teach you how good is the reward for those who do kindness. (Ruth Rabba 2:14)
While the major characters in this narrative indeed perform extraordinary acts of kindness, there must be more to this midrash than meets the eye. After all, characters throughout the Bible engage in acts of kindness and are defined by them. Consider Avraham, whose legendary kindness constitutes the cornerstone of the Jewish nation, or his daughter-in-law Rivka, whose unhesitating kindness is a precondition for selecting her as a wife for Isaac. Actually, we can learn the importance of this character trait by paying attention to the Bibles representation of God: God acts with mercy and grace; He is slow to anger and extends His kindness for many generations.
This midrash raises a second question as well. Although this
midrash does not mention Ruth by name, it certainly directs our attention to
Ruths extraordinary kindness. Indeed, Ruths consistent devotion to Naomi
constitutes the basis of our story. Each chapter has, at its core, a story in
which Ruth single-mindedly focuses all of her efforts on caring for Naomi and
enabling her to rebuild her ruined life. Notably, the bulk of Ruths kindness
involves self-sacrifice. In chapter 1, Ruth remains with her aging, isolated
mother-in-law, despite the fact that Naomi explicitly warns her that she will
not marry or have a future in
It is striking that the midrash presents this as a model, a paradigm of kindness. Is this actually the type of kindness that Judaism wishes to promote? Is the excessive nullification of self in deference to the needs of the other the ideal definition of chesed, the one which merits the greatest reward?
Megillat Ruth: A Book of Davids Lineage
Leaving aside the midrash for a moment, I would like to examine a second passage that addresses the question of the Megillas underlying purpose:
I would not be surprised if this Megilla were here simply to trace the genealogy of David, who was born from Ruth the Moabite. (Zohar Chadash, Megillat Ruth 25b)
This passage offers a different approach. Instead of suggesting that the Megillas eternal message lies in the exceptional personality traits of its characters, this approach regards the Megillas central purpose as sketching the background of the Davidic dynasty. Indeed, the fact that the Megilla ends with the birth of David suggests that Davids birth is the aim of the storys trajectory. In addition, Davids family background is curiously sparse in I Shmuel 17, especially compared to the lengthy birth story of Shmuel himself, which appears at the opening of the book. Megillat Ruth is therefore necessary in order to understand Davids background.
The need for a book describing Davids exceptional ancestors may be especially pressing because his lineage is not free from potential problems. Indeed, Davids detractors could easily claim that his Moavite great-grandmother renders him ineligible for leadership or even for inclusion in the Jewish nation! After all, the Torah states:
No Ammonite or Moavite shall come into the
congregation of the Lord; even the tenth generation shall not come into the
congregation of the Lord for eternity. Because of the matter in which they did
not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left
Rabbinic sources do, in fact, describe a scenario in which Davids background is questioned and probed by his adversaries:
So said Saul: Does he descend from Peretz or does he descend from Zerach? Doeg Ha-Edomi replied to him, Before you ask whether he is suitable for kingship or not, ask whether he is worthy to be admitted to the congregation or not! What is the reason? Because he descends from Ruth the Moabite! Avner said to him, We have learned, Amonite men [are prohibited from joining the congregation], but not Ammonite women; Moavite men, but not Moavite women, because the reason [for their exclusion] is stated in the Bible that they did not greet them with bread and water. It is the way of the man to greet them and not the way of a woman to greet them. (Yevamot 76b)
The Ammonites and Moavites trait of miserliness, of lack of concern for the welfare of their fellow man, disqualifies them from admission into the Jewish nation. They did not give bread and water to the Jewish nation during the Exodus. Nevertheless, the Oral Law modifies this prohibition, applying it only to the male Ammonites and Moavites. As proof, the gemara maintains that it was the men who should have brought out food to weary travelers; therefore, the omission highlights the negative character only of the male members of these societies.
Based on the above, one could suggest that the different explanations cited above actually converge, offering only one approach to the purpose of Megillat Ruth. According to this reading, the objective of Megillat Ruth is to validate the purity of Davids lineage. It does so by illustrating the manner in which Ruth, the Moavite woman in the story, is a paradigm of kindness, consistently and selflessly giving to others. This affirms the logic behind the halakhic distinction between the cruel male Moavites and their female counterparts, whose cruelty has not been established. In fact, the Megilla illustrates this well, creating an image of the unusually kind Moavite woman who is undoubtedly suitable for entrance into kahal Hashem, the congregation of the Lord.
Megillat Ruth and Monarchy
As indicated by the Zohar Chadash, Megillat Ruth should be read as the background to the story of David. The story of David, of course, extends far beyond the person of David himself. In fact, the book of Ruth should be read as the background to the Davidic dynasty, the very institution of the monarchy.
The Bible displays an ambivalent, or perhaps contradictory, attitude towards the monarchy. One biblical passage appears to regard the appointment of a king as an imperative:
When you come to the land which the Lord your God has given you and you possess it and settle it and you say, I shall appoint for myself a king like all of the nations around me, you shall surely appoint for yourself a king, which the Lord your God shall select for you, from among your brethren you shall appoint for yourself a king (Devarim 17:14-15)
Nevertheless, the peoples eventual request for a king infuriates both the prophet Shmuel and God. They regard monarchy as a dangerous institution, designed to replace Gods own rule:
And all of the elders of
Many exegetes struggle with these texts, attempting to resolve the contradictory approaches to the monarchy expressed in them. Some Rabbinic sources present an ongoing argument with regard to these contradictory sources:
And you will say, I will appoint for
myself a king R. Nehorai said: This is a criticism of
Despite the controversy, it is difficult to imagine that the Bible is actually opposed to a monarchical system. God already informs Avraham and Yaakov that kings will come from them (Bereishit 17:6, 16, 35:11). Despite the obvious failings of the monarchical system narrated in the book of Melakhim, many prophets prophesy an ideal vision of the restoration of a monarchy, often specifically the Davidic monarchy (e.g., Yeshayahu 9:6; 11:1-5; Yirmiyahu 23:5; Yechezkel 37:24-25; Zekharia 9:9). In later debate, the majority of medieval exegetes and halakhic authorities consider the appointment of a king to be a biblical commandment.
From a practical standpoint, it would seem that a monarchical system is best suited to facilitate the accomplishment of Am Yisraels national goals, the very reason for its existence. Am Yisrael is charged with two primary tasks: developing an ongoing self-conscious relationship with their God and disseminating knowledge of God to the world at large. Both of these goals but particularly the lofty universal goal require a stable, strong, centralized government, one which can maintain social unity, military security, economic prosperity, and religious integrity. This can pave the way to propagate Gods instructions to the world. Without these elements, it is certain that the nation will not have the means or the standing to accomplish its goals.
The last five chapters of the book of Shoftim indicate how
terribly things can fall apart when there is no monarchical system. These
chapters contain the recurring phrase, In those days, there was no king in
Nevertheless, while the institution of monarchy has the potential to
achieve greatness, it contains within it an abiding danger. Monarchical systems
concentrate power in the hands of one man. The king has all of the societal
infrastructures at his disposal: the judicial system, army, and treasury. Lord
Acton famously wrote that, Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts
absolutely. The history of monarchies, from ancient to modern times, indeed
substantiates the theory that monarchies can easily generate tyrannical, corrupt
behavior. One only has to examine the northern monarchy of
Aware of this danger, the Bible creates precautions and safeguards to contain the power of the monarch:
However, he shall not keep many horses or return the nation to
As an additional precaution, biblical narratives suggest that the monarch cannot function without an accompanying prophet, who functions as a check on the kings absolute power by reminding him of his cardinal duties.
Nevertheless, the institution of kingship, while desirable in many ways, remains a potentially corrupt institution. In order to find a formula for ensuring that Judean kings do not slide into tyranny as a result of their extraordinary power, the Bible presents an ingenious solution. In addition to the safeguards and checks on the kings behavior, the king is actually born from a union of two uncommonly altruistic and generous individuals. This, of course, does not mean that the king will necessarily adopt those traits. As is clear from later narratives, some of the kings of the Davidic dynasty, themselves descendants of Ruth and Boaz, will not actualize their potential and will ignore the qualities of their forbearers. And yet, the notion of creating a dynasty that emerges from two self-sacrificing individuals represents a brilliant attempt to mitigate the dangers of kingship.
It is true that Ruths type of selflessness is not something Judaism demands from its constituents. Yet, it is an absolute necessity for our leaders. Not only do we expect it from our leaders, but it is a virtual prerequisite for the establishment of the monarchy. Without a Ruth at its helm, without someone with the ability to give unselfishly and totally to the other, monarchy is not a promise or a vision of bounty, but a dangerous threat, an ominous future, a recipe for debauchery, depravity and despotism.
The Jewish nation cannot be willing to sacrifice their moral or religious integrity for the material, social, political, or even religious advantages of a monarchy. If the king is tyrannical and corrupt, if he perceives himself as above the law, the nation will fail to accomplish their primary objective, creating an ideal society built on mishpat and tzedaka, justice and righteousness. This would undermine the very purpose of the Jewish nation. Therefore, Ruths character is presented as the foundation of the monarchical dynasty. Only a king with the qualities of a Ruth, kind to the point of abrogating her own self, can retain power without it causing him to degenerate morally and otherwise. A king with a forebear who can guide and even predispose him to serve others can create a kingship whose goal is to serve the people and not to serve the king and his interests.
I believe that this constitutes the very essence of Megillat Ruth. Megillat Ruth is the attempt to create a line of kingship designed to minimize the potential for corruption. This is accomplished by seeking particular personality traits in the progenitors of monarchy. This can explain the specific type of kindness displayed repeatedly by Ruth. By consistently undermining her own interests, Ruth demonstrates the ability to act with complete disregard for her own self-interest, focusing instead utterly, totally, and completely on the other. It is hoped that this trait will be adopted by Ruths descendants, the Davidic kings, who will behave in accordance with the needs of the other, rather than promoting their own interests.
Thus, we have again reconciled the two disparate explanations with which we began this shiur. Indeed, the purpose of Megillat Ruth is to indicate the importance of kindness, specifically the type of kindness necessary to create and maintain the Davidic dynasty.
This series of shiurim is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Naomi Ruth zl bat Aharon Simcha, a woman defined by Naomis unwavering commitment to family and continuity, and Ruths extraordinary selflessness and kindness.
Chazal debate whether certain books should be included in the biblical
canon, there is no explicit discussion recorded regarding the book of Ruth.
Nevertheless, in the context of their ongoing debate regarding the canonicity of
Esther and Shir Ha-shirim,
 After Naomi places the child in her bosom and becomes his foster mother, the women respond with the declaration, A child has been born to Naomi! (Ruth 4:17).
 In a well-known passage, the gemara in Sanhedrin 20b suggests that it is not the request for monarchy which angers God, but rather the underlying attitude of the request, the peoples desire to be like the other nations.
 Cf. Sanhedrin 20b.
 A great deal
more may be added to this controversial topic. Taken together, the biblical
sources appear to be ambivalent about kingship. Several narratives express deep
misgivings regarding monarchy; see,
for example the end of the story of Gidon (Shoftim 8:22-23) and the parable of
Yotam (Shoftim 9: 8-15). While it is beyond the scope of this shiur to contend
fully with these issues, I refer interested readers to
 The Rambam, Ramban, Sefer Ha-chinukh and Maharsha view the appointment of a king as an obligation. The Ibn Ezra (Devarim 17:15) regards the monarchy as permissible, but not obligatory. A notable exception to this approach is the Abravanel, who is generally wary of kingship.
 See Sefer
Ha-chinukh 71 and 497 (77 and
 Shoftim 17:6; 18:1;19:1; 21:15.
 This story, which portrays the inhospitable nature of the inhabitants of Givah, precipitates the collective rape and dismemberment of a woman, the consequence of which is a horrible civil war and a looming threat over the future of the nation of Israel. We will have occasion to discuss this story at greater length in later shiurim.
 Although God endorses Yehus bid to decimate the house of Achav, indicating that he has acted righteously in this matter (I Melakhim 10:30), Yehus enthusiastic bloodletting is condemned by the prophet Hoshea (1:4). In any case, Yehu is the only king of Israel who may be regarded in a positive light.
 In this shiur, I have focused exclusively on the manner in which this trait of selfless kindness manifests itself in the personality of Ruth, the Mother of Kingship. In later shiurim, I will examine the way in which Boazs personality mirrors Ruth in this regard. For the present, I will merely note that the very idea of marrying a Moavite woman demands that Boaz demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice his reputation, and perhaps even the future of his family (see the goels words in Ruth 4:6). We will examine this and other complementary ideas at greater length in later shiurim.
 I am not suggesting that the experiment of Megillat Ruth works out perfectly; the Davidic dynasty certainly has its share of problems. Nevertheless, I think that when viewed in a relative light, especially when compared to their northern counterparts, we get a sense of the success of the Davidic dynasty. After all, the Davidic dynasty has several pious and scrupulous kings who appear to have higher interests at heart. In this way, they succeed in squelching the quest for self-aggrandizement that generally accompanies power. Consider the reigns of Asa, Yehoshaphat, Yoash, Amatzia, Uzia, Yotam, Chezekia, and Yoshiahu.