Friday, May 22, 2020

Ruth and Hesed (חסד)

This essay looks at the use of the word hesed in the Book of Ruth. Normally translated “loving kindness,” I argue that the word indicates human relationship characterized by pure faithfulness and fidelity, loyalty and devotion that extends beyond the formal requirements of familial and societal responsibility.

To begin I would like to review, for a moment, where we've been recently, liturgically speaking, and where we're going. Let me remind you that exactly seven weeks ago, we witnessed God's act of redemption, when He brought us out of Egypt and led us triumphantly across the Red Sea. In the interim, we've been crossing a kind of personal, moral desert, the period of  sephirat ha-omer, counting the omer, avoiding celebrations, some going so far as to letting their hair and beards grow long, as though in mourning.

And here we are, standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, about to receive God's Torah.
It's an awesome, frightening moment—the mountain smoking and quaking as heaven and  earth meet. We don't want to get near the place, so we end up sending Moses, alone. It's a strict, stern message that we receive at Sinai: do this, don't do that. But, given the nature of the moment,  we're in no position to argue, and so we simply respond, “Whatever you say, we'll do."

Now, at the same time that we are experiencing the awe and terror of the imperative revelation at Sinai, liturgically speaking, we are also treated to the recitation of the Book of Ruth. And what a contrast. A volcanic Mount Sinai is replaced with the quiet grain fields of Judea. God is mentioned, but does not act. The Torah is there, but only as background. There is no imperative in Ruth. Rather, the focus is on human relationships, and it’s that feature of Ruth that I would like to concentrate on.

Before I begin the analysis, let me say that this narrative, the Book of Ruth, has this in common with much of biblical narrative: human encounters occurs in pairs, two protagonists  at a time. Even when there are more than two—Joseph and his brothers—it's a duet: Joseph’s brothers speak with one voice. In Ruth, too, human encounters occur in pairs, Ruth and someone: Ruth and Naomi, Ruth and Boaz.
Naomi and Boaz never meet. What's more, there is a quality to these encounters, a warmth, a tenderness, that is hard to express in a single  word, but I would like to propose a word. The word is hesed (חסד). It is a word used of Naomi with regard to her daughters-in-law when  they choose to follow her. It is used again of Ruth, when Boaz describes Ruth's loyalty to Naomi, and it is used by Naomi to describe Boaz' treatment of Ruth after she had returned from gleaning in Boaz' field.

But what does it mean? It is generally translated “love,” or  “loving kindness ,” and is used mostly of God's kindness, as when, in the Amidah, God is called gomel hasadim tovim, “one who treats us with loving kindness.” The term appears in the context of human relations in the expression gemillut hasadim, referring to kindness shown to people in trouble, or those who are less fortunate than we are.

But I think that the Book of Ruth reveals a different  aspect of hesed, namely, that hesed has to do with the development of human relations based on pure faithfulness and fidelity, loyalty and devotion. When human relationships extend beyond the formal legal requirements of familial and societal responsibility, there we find hesed.

Much of what takes place in Ruth has a legal background. That is, for much of what occurs in Ruth, one can find legal material from the Torah which would apply in that particular instance. But what we also find is that in each case, the actors in the Book of Ruth go beyond the requirements of the law out of faithfulness to some more fundamental requirements of human relationships. Consider this passage, Deuteronomy 25:5-10.           

“When brothers dwell together and one of them dies and leaves no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married to a stranger, outside the family. Her husband's brother shall unite with her: take her as his wife and perform the levir's duty. The first son that she bears shall be accounted to the dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out in Israel. But if the man does not want to marry his brother's widow, his brother's widow shall appear before the elders in  the gate and declare, ‘My husband's brother refuses to establish a  name in Israel for his brother; he will not perform the duty of a levir.’ The elders of his town shall then summon him and talk to him. If he insists, saying, ‘I do not want to marry her,’ his brother's widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull the sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and make this declaration: Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother's house! And he shall go in Israel by the name of ‘the family of the unsandaled one.’”

Now let's take a look at Ruth's action in relation to this passage. Ruth is left a widow. There is no brother to act as levir. Her father-in law is also deceased, and, as Naomi explains, even were she, Naomi, to find a husband immediately, she is beyond childbearing years. There is no way for the duty as described in Deuteronomy to be fulfilled. Orpah, Naomi’s other daughter-in-law, recognizing this, returns to her home. But Ruth acts out of a motivation that goes beyond formal legal duty; that has to do with a sense of personal loyalty to her mother-in-law; to the personal bond that exists between them, as demonstrated by Ruth 1:16-17.

“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. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.’”

Now consider two passages from the Torah:

“When you rea p the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God”
(Leviticus 19:9-10).

“When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not tum back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertaking” (Deuteronomy 24:19).

From this we get an image of Ruth, along with other destitute souls, walking behind the reapers and picking up fallen stalks of grain which, according to law, were to be left behind.

Yet here again (Ruth 2:14-16), we find an instance where the protagonist goes beyond the requirements of the law. Discovering Ruth gathering in his field at mealtime, Boaz seats Ruth with the other reapers so that she can eat a decent meal, and she even has leftovers to take home to Naomi. He instructs his foremen to allow Ruth to glean among the standing sheaves and further instructs them to pull some of the ears of grain out of the sheaves, so that Ruth will have a bit extra  to glean. Ruth returns to Naomi with what seems to be a sizeable quantity of grain.  Clearly, Boaz has gone beyond the legal requirements.

Now consider a passage from Leviticus 25:

“If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding, his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his kinsman has sold. If a man has no one to redeem for him, but prospers and acquires enough to redeem with, he shall compute the year since its sale, return the difference to the man to whom he sold it, and return to his holding. If he lacks sufficient means to recover it, what he sold shall remain with the purchaser until the jubilee; in the jubilee year it shall be released, and he shall return to his holding” (Leviticus 25:25-28)

Generally, it was the responsibility of the go’el, the “redeemer” or next of kin, to protect the family: to avenge the blood of a murdered family member, to protect family property from alienation, and to come to the aid of family members in distress. And so Boaz goes to the go’el of the family and explains to him that Naomi is about to sell her property and that he, the go’el, has the right of redemption, while Boaz would obtain  that right if the go’el reneged (Ruth 4:1-4). Then he lays the bombshell.

“Then Boaz said, ‘The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance” (Ruth 4:6)

Fearing this arrangement might threaten his own estate, the go’el relinquishes the right.

Now, it really isn't clear exactly how this so-called levirate marriage proceeded in the case where there were no surviving brothers. In Genesis 38, where a similar situation occurs, the obligation comes to rest on the father-in-law, but there is no father-in-law here.  At the very least, Boaz is pushing the law to its outermost limit in making the Moabite widow part of the bargain.

So Ruth and Boaz go beyond duty, bringing hesed into their personal and familial dealings. But there is an even deeper message in the way in which each act of hesed leads to the next act of hesed. We have already noted Ruth's act of personal loyalty and devotion that motivated her to return to Judea with her mother-in-law, what we are calling a true act of hesed. And so, when Boaz encounters Ruth gleaning in his field, he responds to her act of hesed (2:8-12). Boaz speaks of Ruth's act of hesed in the same language of migration used in Genesis with regard to Abraham's migration (compare Ruth 2:11 with Genesis 12:1), and it is her act of hesed, her act of loyalty and devotion that engenders his act of hesed.

And again, Boaz’ act of hesed leads to the next act of hesed. As instructed by Naomi, Ruth proceeds one night to the threshing floor, where Boaz is encamped, and lies down with him. The scene is odd, a bit difficult to decipher, but I believe that what is happening is that Ruth is more or less forcing Boaz’ hand with a proposal of marriage (Ruth 3:8-10). Ruth could have gone after  another man. Perhaps she could have found a rich young lad. It is clear, incidentally, based on the way in which Boaz speaks to Ruth, in much the same manner as Naomi speaks to her, that Boaz is a contemporary of Naomi, old enough to be Ruth's father. She could have found a young stud.

But Ruth was not operating out of self-interest, but out of a sense of faithfulness, loyalty and devotion. And so each act of hesed leads to the next, resulting in the ultimate well-being of the family, the birth of a child, who ends up being the grandfather of King David and thus an ancestor of the Messiah, the ultimate redemption.

So our journey from Egypt through the Red Sea and across  the wilderness leads us to Sinai, but it also leads us to each other. It is in those acts of mutual devotion, loyalty and faithfulness to one another, that we discover Torah.

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