I think of Ruth every time I drop a notebook. The protagonist of her own biblical book, this woman knew how to retrieve things from the ground. It was one of the first things I learned about her, as a third-grade student in an Orthodox Jewish school: other women in ancient Israel, the midrash tells us, bent at the waist when they gathered in the fields to harvest the remaining grain. , their dresses rising indecently up their legs. But Ruth was kneeling at the knee. (She also let everyone have their fill before picking up what she needed, and she didn’t laugh with the servants like the other women.) By squatting like this, she preserved her modesty. This is how, we were told, a true daughter of Israel picks up things from the ground. This, we are told, is the reason Ruth was noticed by Boaz, the eligible bachelor and wealthy owner of the field who was also her distant relative and was to marry her.
The teaching has its sources: In Ruth 2:5, Boaz asks the leader of his workers about the new wife, and he is told that it is a Moabite named Ruth who has returned to Israel fleeing famine, with her stepmother. law, Naomi. There is already a hint of interest in Boaz’s question, just three Hebrew words: L’mi ha’naarah hazeh? Who owns this woman? Turns out she only belongs to Naomi. Her husband is dead. But Boaz and his question slightly scandalized later Jewish commentators. Rashi, writing in the 11th century, comments: “And was this Boaz’s way of asking about women?” (Subtext: Surely not! What kind of man asks about women?!) Rashi explains rather quickly that Boaz only asked because he had noticed her modest habits, the way she kept her skirt down while that the other women picked up theirs, that she would only take two sheaves of grain when three were available, that she would pick up the fallen sheaves in a sitting position instead of a standing one so “not to bend over”. Subtext: The modest woman does not take too much, she supports the discomfort of a tight skirt, she is always concerned about who is watching. There’s a right way and a wrong way to pick up a notebook off the floor.
There are several reasons why we read the story of Ruth on Shavuot. The most obvious is that Ruth is the hero of the harvest story, and Shavuot the harvest festival. But Ruth’s personality, the sweet passive femininity of her doe-eyed modesty that carried through the telling of the story, always struck me as antithetical to the story of Mount Sinai. Shavuot is not just the harvest festival, but the celebration of the mysterious and momentous moment that happens at Mount Sinai: the moment when God takes Israel as his bride, offering the Torah as an engagement ring, the mountain held above our heads like a chuppah, or maybe like a threat. A moment of such stillness, not even a bird flapped its wings. And then we accept, and the slaves of Egypt become the Jewish people. We celebrate. We stay up all night, because what bride is supposed to sleep on her wedding night?
How different from Ruth, all that. The people of Israel are not quiet, hopeful lovers on the ground. They are impetuous, angry, full of demands and desires. They are not grateful for their gifts of parched grain. They have a stiff neck, complain, make noise. They despise God almost on every page. The union, in some accounts, was practically forced.
What about them and Ruth, this woman relieved of her needs? This woman, poor and hungry in a foreign country who wisely declines her full measure of grain. The Ruth given to me has nothing to complain about. She is modest. This modesty frees her from the suspicion of need that her situation suggests. The other women, we are told, take as much as they can as fast as they can. The despair of other women is sad. Ruth is not sad. She is modest. Subtext: There is something immodest about a desperate woman. Dangerous.
It wasn’t until later that I questioned Ruth’s modesty, the woman I think of whenever I drop something I need. She is a woman who, after all, in a few lines will come down to the threshing floor at night in her finest clothes and slip into Boaz’s bed while he sleeps. She will “uncover her feet and lie down” as her stepmother instructs her to. In the Bible, Boaz will wake up in the middle of the night, surprised to find a woman at his feet. He says, very simply, in the night: Me at? Who are you? Ruth gives him his name before asking directly: “Spread your robe over your servant, for you are a redeemer. Boaz, the distant relative of her now deceased husband, is the man who bears the responsibility for marriage. He is a go’el, a redeemer, of Ruth. The law is clear. Who owns this woman? Turns out she belongs to him.
Boaz is full of happiness at his request. Ruth didn’t go after a younger man, but after him, and he calls that great kindness. His joy at this moment has always surprised me. He is a Moabite foreigner, arrived late in a new place, in urgent need of a husband to ensure his ability to eat, and he is a wealthy man who owns many fields and has shown his kindness. Of course, she chose him. There are no other men at his doorstep, as far as we know. But I like how her happiness balances the score a bit between them. Suggests the possibility of choice. She is not desperate. She chooses Boaz, and he is delighted. Some complications ensue. There is another redeemer to deal with, there is the question of the fields, there is the question of getting Ruth home safely in the morning before anyone realizes that a woman has been on the threshing floor. But in the end, Ruth and Boaz end up together and have a child, and through this child the Messiah will one day come, and until then the daughters of Israel will bend their knees and not their waists, and men will come to marry them .
But that’s not the only story. Modest Ruth catches the eye of Boaz, but it is cheeky Ruth who brings about the marriage. I had never noticed that. The contrast between her covered legs in the field and her uncovered feet at night. The way brashness is rewarded. Here is Ruth, modest and beautiful Ruth, lying at the feet of Boaz, asking him to redeem her. Here is Boaz, full of joy. And here are the people of Israel, asking for more water, cursing the God who redeemed them from Egypt, to glean in somebody else’s field. A triangle of ancestors. What do we do with this trio, the day before Shavuot? Is it better to seize all that one can take from the field or to live by the constraint of the marital bed? The people of Israel seem uncertain. The mountain stands above our heads. For a still, silent moment, we stare at the list of modesty standards presented to us, alongside the promise of protection. And then the people of Israel, full of doubt, agree. A flash of joy. A syndicate. A destiny set in motion, as evolving as the seed destined for bread, destined for redemption. There is a good time and a bad time for bare legs. A modest woman knows the difference. A modest woman knows how to get what she wants from the threshing floor. The Ruth I remember when I kneel down is also the Ruth who uncovers the legs of Boaz, a woman unworthy of being forgotten. A people worthy of God’s love. Anyway, a love story. We remember the value of being wise and discreet, and we remember all that is possible when we are shameless about what we want, about our love. To whom do these people belong? To a delighted God.