Taking Initiative: Rut’s Place Among the Mothers of Tanach

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Dina Kritz

Towards the end of Megillat Rut, the people of Bet Lechem bless Boaz that his new wife should be like some of the women at the beginning of Jewish history.

וַיֹּאמְרוּ כָּל-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-בַּשַּׁעַר וְהַזְּקֵנִים עֵדִים יִתֵּן ה’ אֶת-הָאִשָּׁה הַבָּאָה אֶל-בֵּיתֶךָ כְּרָחֵל וּכְלֵאָה אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ שְׁתֵּיהֶם אֶת-בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל… וִיהִי בֵיתְךָ כְּבֵית פֶּרֶץ אֲשֶׁר-יָלְדָה תָמָר לִיהוּדָה מִן-הַזֶּרַע אֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן ה’ לְךָ מִן-הַנַּעֲרָה הַזֹּאת:

All the people at the gate and the elders answered, “We are witnesses. May G-d make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel..And may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah—through the offspring which G-d will give you by this young woman.”

What’s so special about these three women, Rachel, Leah, and Tamar, that the city hoped Rut would be like them? Further, is it a blessing to be compared to three women who faced trying times?

Perhaps the people saw something in Rut’s actions and journey which reminded them of their foremothers. After all, they too left their father’s home in another land. When Yaacov informed them that he wanted to return to Canaan, both because he felt a growing distance between himself and Lavan and because he had received a vision from G-d telling him to return, they readily agreed, stating that they too felt unwanted in Lavan’s home, and ended their response, “Now, do everything that G-d has told you to do.” They wanted Yaacov to listen his deity and they were simultaneously done with living in a home in which they barely counted. They packed up and left their father, their people, and their culture (and, presumably, their religious beliefs) to follow a person they loved to a foreign land, just as Rut would do hundreds of years later.

The Iggeret Shmuel writes that because the elders recognized a similarity between Rut and the two mothers, they blessed Boaz that “all that Rachel and Leah had built, Rut should also merit to build,” i.e., the Jewish people. They blessed Boaz that Rut’s entire life and legacy should echo Rachel and Leah’s, not only her entry into the land and nation.

Here is an explanation for the first part of the blessing. Additionally, it’s wonderful to tell a woman who has just become Jewish that she will hopefully become just like the matriarchs. But why does the Megillah mention Tamar? There is no reason for the blessing not to read “may your house be like the house of Peretz the son of Yehuda.” And it seems strange to hope that the birth of Boaz and Rut’s children will be like the birth of Yehuda and Tamar’s children, who were conceived under very uncomfortable circumstances.

However, the commentators suggest that Tamar’s actions are the very reason for her appearance here. The previous night, Rut had come to Boaz’s threshing floor, laid at his feet, and asked him to fulfill his role as the family redeemer (and give her a child). Several commentators even propose that the elders mentioned Tamar to a worried Boaz as proof that Rut’s actions were praiseworthy, and not shameful or improper. As the Gishmei Bracha writes:

“אשר ילדה תמר ליהודה”: יתכן דהעלו עתה לפני בועז את זיכרון תמר ויהודה כדי לחזק רוחו, כי אולי צר לו על האופן הבלתי נימוסי שנתקרבה רות אליו. זכרו לו את תמר, שגם היא נתקרבה ליהודה באופן בלתי נימוסי, אך מפני שהיתה כוונתה לשמים היה זרעה קודש וברכה לבית ישראל, וכן יעלה ברות.

“Whom Tamar bore to Yehuda”: It’s possible that [the witnesses and the elders] reminded Boaz of Tamar and Yehuda at this moment to encourage him [literally, to strengthen his spirit], because perhaps he was concerned about the manner in which Rut had come to him. They reminded him of Tamar, who had also come to Yehuda in unusual/irreligious manner, but because she had had proper intentions, her descendants brought holiness and blessing to Israel, and so too should Rut’s descendants.

Perhaps, as Ralbag writes, they saw a similarity between Tamar’s and Rut’s lives, just as they had seen a similarity between Rut’s journey and Rachel and Leah’s journey.

“ויהי ביתך כבית פרץ”: ברכוהו בברכת אביהם פרץ שבא מתמר לסבה מתדמה לזו:
“May your house be like the house of Peretz”: They blessed him with the blessing of their father Peretz, who had been born from Tamar for a similar reason.

I’m not certain whether Ralbag means a similar situation or a similar reason when he uses the word סבה. I would like to interpret his interpretation as a sign the people of Bet Lechem saw what Tamar and Rut both believed they had to do. In each case, a woman who was stuck, without a husband or child, took initiative. Tamar decided to stop waiting for the day Yehuda might marry her to Shelah, and Rut decided to go to the field to glean, and then carefully chose her words when she followed Naomi’s advice and went to ask Boaz to marry her.

Rachel and Leah also took initiative; albeit in a less problematic manner. In addition to actively choosing to follow Yaacov, Rachel tried to become pregnant and Leah strove to build a relationship with her husband (and her call to Yaacov to come into her tent one night seems to have produced her three youngest children). Perhaps the people thought it appropriate to compare Rut to Rachel, Leah, and Tamar because they had created Bnei Yisrael through active decisions: Rachel and Leah left their home to allow Yaacov and his sons to start off in Canaan, and Tamar acted (and risked her life) to give birth to the David’s ancestor, and Rut continued Peretz’s line.

I do not believe that the point of Megillat Rut or the point of reading it on Shavuot is to portray active women in Jewish history, but I do believe it’s an important point to keep in mind. As we read the Megillah and as we accept the Torah once again, we should follow the example of these four women and chose to take initiative, not only in marriage but in all aspects of life. Judaism is a religion which requires active participation, and we should be like Rut, who actively brought about her marriage to Boaz but also actively chose to leave the past behind and become part of our nation.

Dina Kritz (SBM ‘15) is a participant in Matan’s Bellows Eshkolot Educators Institute for Tanakh and Jewish Studies.

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