The Book of Ruth was recorded by the prophet Samuel. It is appropriate to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot for two reasons: First, because Shavuot is a harvest festival and the Book of Ruth gives us a picture of the harvest, and how the poor were treated in the harvest season with sympathy and love. Secondly, because Shavuot is the anniversary of the passing of King David, who was the great-grandson of Ruth and Boaz, whose story is told in the Book of Ruth.
But perhaps the main reason for our reading the Book of Ruth on this festival is because it gives us such a vivid picture of the ger tzedek, true proselyte. Shavuot is the "time of the giving of our Torah," and when we received it, we too, like the ger tzedek, pledged to accept the Torah and fulfill its 613 commandments.
Jews everywhere never cease to be proud of their unhesitating acceptance of the Torah and of its wonderful teachings. Despite all the impositions, restrictions, and responsibilities that it places upon every adult Jew, he or she is always conscious of the privilege of being a member of G‑d's chosen people.
The Jewish people do not seek proselytes. Our Torah tells us that when a would-be proselyte wishes to become a Jew, it is our duty to point out to him or her all the difficulties this would entail, as well as the burden of responsibility that rest upon the Jew in his obligation to fulfill the Torah and its commandments. We are to show him that he is choosing a very difficult path, and a life that is not popular with the rest of the world.
If, despite all these considerations and warnings, the person still persists in his or her desire to embrace Judaism, then indeed we can be proud to accept such a man or woman into our fold, for they will surely become devout and sincere Jews.
Onkelos, the famous author of the Aramaic translation of the Bible was such a ger tzedek, and so, too, was Ruth.
Ruth was a Moabite princess who was imbued with lofty ideals. She was dissatisfied with the idol-worship of her own people, and when the opportunity arose, she gladly discarded the privilege of royalty in her land and accepted a life of poverty among people whom she admired.
This is how it all came about:
It was in the days when the judges ruled in Israel. The children of Israel had become lax in their observance of the Torah and had brought G‑d's punishment upon themselves. A terrible famine ravished the land.
There was a certain man in Judah named Elimelech. He was a wealthy merchant who was not used to hunger and poverty, and so he thought he would escape from the misery by moving elsewhere. He took his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, and settled in Moab.
Ruth befriended this Jewish family and began comparing their different way of life to her own. As her admiration for Jewish laws and customs grew, she became more and more dissatisfied with the meaningless idol-worship of her own people. When one of Naomi's sons asked her to marry him, she was happy and proud to accept.
She did not regret giving up her life of luxury, her royal title, and her future prospects for wealth and honor. All she saw was the selfishness and mercilessness of her own people, and how the Jews, to whom she now had attached herself, were so different.
Time passed and Elimelech and both his sons died. Naomi was left a poor widow, not knowing what to do or where to turn. She turned to Ruth and to her other daughter-in-law Orpah (also a Moabite):
"My daughters, I must go away. I have decided to return to my home, to Bet-Lechem.
I am a poor woman with no means of supporting you, and there is no reason why you should suffer too. Take my advice and go back to your parents' home. Your husbands are dead, and perhaps if you remain in your own country, you may find other men to marry. I have lost my sons forever, but you are still young, you can get other husbands."
Orpah sadly kissed her mother-in-law and bade her good-bye. But Ruth clung tearfully to Naomi and begged her to allow her to go with her. She implored her with these touching words:
"Entreat me not to leave you and to return from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your G‑d is my G‑d; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried; the L-rd do so to me, and more also, if anything but death part you and me."
Ruth knew full well what she was doing. Naomi had reminded her of the difficulties that confronted the Jew at all times, yet Ruth was unshaken in her determination to follow her mother-in-law and cling to the faith she had adopted -the faith that had become so dear to her.
The future was to prove that Ruth be justly rewarded for her high resolve; even in her poverty she had no regrets.
It was harvest time when Ruth and Naomi came to the land of Judah. They were both weary from their journey, and Ruth prevailed upon Naomi to rest while she herself would go out into the fields of Bet-Lechem, and see what food she could find to sustain them.
Ruth entered a field where many men were busy cutting grain, binding it into sheaves, and piling them onto wagons and carting them away.
Hesitant yet spurred on by her hunger and by the thought that she must get something for her dear mother-in-law, Ruth went into the field and sat down for a while to rest and to see what luck she might have there.
Suddenly she was startled to hear a kind and gentle voice: "G‑d be with you, stranger!"
Ruth acknowledged the friendly greeting. She was grateful to hear the same kind person speak on:
"Come along into the field. Do not be bashful! Gather some ears of grain and satisfy your hunger!"
It was Boaz, the owner of the field, who thus addressed Ruth. Boaz was the judge of the Jewish people at that time.
Ruth thanked him and plucked some ears of grain. As she was about to depart, Boaz urged her to stay a while and gather what the peah - what the reapers had left in the corners of the field.
"What is peah?" asked Ruth.
"Our Torah tells us that when the owner of a field has his grain cut, he is obligated to leave a corner of the field for the poor, the needy, and the stranger to come and reap for themselves," answered Boaz.
"How wonderful!" exclaimed Ruth. And so she stayed and cut the grain from a corner of the field, and was then again about to go away.
"You do not need to go yet," urged Boaz. "Why not stay and benefit from leket?"
"What does leket mean?" asked Ruth.
"According to our Torah, if a reaper misses some grain with his scythe, he is not allowed to go back, but must leave the grain which he has either failed to cut or has dropped, and this must be left as `gleanings' for the poor and the stranger," explained Boaz patiently.
Ruth said nothing, but saw no reason for refusing to take advantage of the laws of the Torah, which she herself had so gladly embraced.
When she had gathered a whole basketful, she went up to Boaz, thanked him very sincerely for his kindness, and got ready to depart.
"There is no need for you to go yet," coaxed Boaz. "There is still shikchah which you can take."
"The Torah is indeed boundless in its care for the less fortunate ones," said Ruth. "Now please tell me what is shikchah?"
"When the owner of a field is taking his load of grain to his granaries, it is possible that he may have forgotten some sheaves in the field. Well, the Torah forbids him to go back and get them, but he must leave these forgotten sheaves for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger."
Ruth was so happy with her good fortune. She had gathered almost more than she could carry. She and Naomi were now well provided-for. She thanked Boaz once more, and he made her promise to come again.
Ruth was full of excitement as she hastened to her mother-in-law and related all that had happened to her in the fields of Boaz. Naomi was happy that Ruth had been so successful and had found favor in the eyes of Boaz the noble land-owner. She told Ruth that Boaz was a kinsman of Elimelech.
In the meantime Boaz had made inquires about the stranger who had captured his heart
with her modesty and piousness, and he discovered that she was the widowed daughter-in-law of Naomi. When Boaz asked Ruth to marry him, Naomi urged her to do so.
And so Ruth was unexpectedly rewarded with wealth and happiness.
Ruth and Boaz had a son named Oved who became the father of Jesse (Yishai). The youngest son of
Jesse was David, who became the L-rd's anointed and beloved king of all the Jewish people.