Depictions of Chesed in Ruth Rabbah

אָמַר רַבִּי זְעֵירָא, מְגִלָּה זוֹ אֵין בָּהּ לֹא טֻמְאָה, וְלֹא טָהֳרָה, וְלֹא אִסּוּר, וְלֹא הֶתֵּר, וְלָמָּה נִכְתְּבָה לְלַמֶּדְךָ כַּמָּה שָׂכָר טוֹב לְגוֹמְלֵי חֲסָדִים.

R. Ze'ira said: This scroll [of Ruth] tells us nothing of purity or impurity, of prohibition or permission. For what purpose was it written? To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of loving-kindness [chasadim].

  • Why do you think R. Ze’ira says this?

  • How does the book of Ruth teach that those who do gemilut chasadim are rewarded?

  • What are some of the key acts of hesed in the narrative? Who enacts them?

  • How essential do you think the notion of hesed is to the Book of Ruth? What would you say is the primary teaching of this ​​​​​​​megillah?

וַתֹּאכַל וַתִּשְׂבַּע וַתֹּתַר, נִרְאִין הַדְּבָרִים שֶׁהַבְּרָכָה שָׁרְתָה בְּמֵעֶיהָ שֶׁל אוֹתָהּ צַדֶּקֶת. אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק בַּר מַרְיוֹן בָּא הַכָּתוּב לְלַמֶּדְךָ שֶׁאִם אָדָם עוֹשֶׂה מִצְוָה יַעֲשֶׂנָּה בְּלֵבָב שָׁלֵם, שֶׁאִלּוּ הָיָה רְאוּבֵן יוֹדֵעַ שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַכְתִּיב עָלָיו (בראשית לז, כא): וַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן וַיַּצִּילֵהוּ מִיָּדָם, בִּכְתֵפוֹ הָיָה מוֹלִיכוֹ אֵצֶל אָבִיו. וְאִלּוּ הָיָה יוֹדֵעַ אַהֲרֹן שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַכְתִּיב עָלָיו (שמות ד, יד): הִנֵּה הוּא יֹצֵא לִקְרָאתֶךָ בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחוֹלוֹת הָיָה יוֹצֵא לִקְרָאתוֹ. וְאִלּוּ הָיָה יוֹדֵעַ בֹּעַז שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַכְתִּיב עָלָיו: וַיִּצְבָּט לָהּ קָלִי וַתֹּאכַל וַתִּשְׂבַּע וַתֹּתַר, עֲגָלוֹת מְפֻטָּמוֹת הָיָה מַאֲכִילָהּ. רַבִּי כֹּהֵן וְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ דְּסִכְנִין בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי לֵוִי לְשֶׁעָבַר הָיָה אָדָם עוֹשֶׂה מִצְוָה וְהַנָּבִיא כּוֹתְבָהּ, וְעַכְשָׁיו כְּשֶׁאָדָם עוֹשֶׂה מִצְוָה מִי כּוֹתְבָהּ, אֵלִיָּהוּ כּוֹתְבָהּ וּמֶלֶךְ הַמָּשִׁיחַ וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא חוֹתֵם עַל יְדֵיהֶם, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (מלאכי ג, טז): אָז נִדְבְּרוּ יִרְאֵי ה' אִישׁ אֶל רֵעֵהוּ וגו'.

"And he reached her parched corn, and she ate and was satisfied and had some left over" (Ruth 2:14). R. Isaac b. Marion said: This verse can teach that if a person is about to perform a good deed, he should do it with all his heart. For had Reuben known that Scripture would record of him, "And Reuben heard it, and saved him from their hand" (Gen. 37:21), he would have borne Joseph on his shoulder to his father. And had Aaron known that Scripture would record of him, "And also, behold, he comes forth to you (Exod. 4:14), he would have gone forth to meet him with timbrels and dances. And had Boaz known that Scripture would record of him, "And he reached her parched corn, and she ate and was satisfied and had some left over" (Ruth 2:14), he would have fed her fatted calves.

R. Cohen and R. Joshua of Siknin said in the name of R. Levi: In the past, when a person performed a good deed, the prophet placed it on record; but nowadays when a person performs a good deed, who records it? Elijah records it and the Messiah and the Holy One, blessed be He, add their seal to it. This is the meaning of the verse, "Then they who feared God spoke with one another; and God listened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him" (Mal. 3:16).

  • What point does the first paragraph of the midrash make?

  • What is the context for each of the two prooftexts that it cites?

  • Do acts of hesed differ whether they are being “recorded” or not?

  • Do you act differently when doing a good deed if you know that someone is paying attention?

  • The quote from Malachi hearkens to the liturgy of Yom Kippur. Usually we think of it as a day to recount our sins and atone, but Malachi offers us the opportunity to think about it from the opposite side. How do you note and record your own acts of hesed?

Aviva Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep, pp. 372-3

… the midrash goes on to speak of the “nowadays reality as one of pure narrative: when one does a good deed, who records it? In the past, the prophet was at hand to record such deeds -- the gap between narrative and closure was narrowed, the prophet effecting almost simultaneous translation, so that full and final meanings were, to some extent, even in this world, to be understood. But now, such record is a matter of faith: Elijah, the Messiah, God Himself ensure that the significant moments of narrative are written, their meanings elucidated. But that writing happens in some other world…

… After the prophetic period, however, the existence of such a divine record becomes a matter of faith. We remain essentially uncorroborated in this world, with our various social networks, normative worlds, conversational fabrics. Although the midrash maintains that all is ultimately on record --signed by God-- in this world we have no access to that divine text. Those who belong to the society of believers sustain their world of belief in God’s providence and in the larger repercussions of human action. They may discuss theology and interpret reality; but final meaning -- the divine writing -- is not available to them. Like Reuven, and Aaron, and Boaz, they live in this world, which is the world of narrative. Here a pinch of parched corn may have to do in place of fatted calves…

  • How does Zornberg understand the midrash?

  • Do you agree with the theology represented in this commentary?

  • What does it mean that “final meaning… is not available to them?” Is our human realm inherently limited as a result?

  • Has social media or the public nature of the internet affected how you tell your own story or inform your ethical behavior?

  • Does this midrash support the statement of R. Ze’ira in Source #1?

עִם הַמֶּלֶךְ בִּמְלַאכְתּוֹ יָשְׁבוּ שָׁם, מִכָּאן אָמְרוּ לֹא מֵתָה רוּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּה עַד שֶׁרָאֲתָה שְׁלֹמֹה בֶּן בְּנָהּ יוֹשֵׁב וְדָן דִּינָן שֶׁל זוֹנוֹת, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (מלכים א ב, יט): וַיָּשֶׂם כִּסֵּא לְאֵם הַמֶּלֶךְ זוֹ בַּת שֶׁבַע, וַתֵּשֶׁב לִימִינוֹ זוֹ רוּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּה.

"There they dwelt, occupied in the king's work." On the strength of this verse, they said that Ruth the Moabite did not die until she saw her descendant Solomon sitting and judging the case of the harlots. That is the meaning of the verse, "And set a throne for the king's mother," that is, Bathsheba, "And she sat at his right hand" (1 Kings 2:19), referring to Ruth the Moabite.

(טז) אָ֣ז תָּבֹ֗אנָה שְׁתַּ֛יִם נָשִׁ֥ים זֹנ֖וֹת אֶל־הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֖דְנָה לְפָנָֽיו׃

(כג) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ זֹ֣את אֹמֶ֔רֶת זֶה־בְּנִ֥י הַחַ֖י וּבְנֵ֣ךְ הַמֵּ֑ת וְזֹ֤את אֹמֶ֙רֶת֙ לֹ֣א כִ֔י בְּנֵ֥ךְ הַמֵּ֖ת וּבְנִ֥י הֶחָֽי׃ (כד) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ קְח֣וּ לִי־חָ֑רֶב וַיָּבִ֥אוּ הַחֶ֖רֶב לִפְנֵ֥י הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ (כה) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ גִּזְר֛וּ אֶת־הַיֶּ֥לֶד הַחַ֖י לִשְׁנָ֑יִם וּתְנ֤וּ אֶֽת־הַחֲצִי֙ לְאַחַ֔ת וְאֶֽת־הַחֲצִ֖י לְאֶחָֽת׃ (כו) וַתֹּ֣אמֶר הָאִשָּׁה֩ אֲשֶׁר־בְּנָ֨הּ הַחַ֜י אֶל־הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ כִּֽי־נִכְמְר֣וּ רַחֲמֶיהָ֮ עַל־בְּנָהּ֒ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר ׀ בִּ֣י אֲדֹנִ֗י תְּנוּ־לָהּ֙ אֶת־הַיָּל֣וּד הַחַ֔י וְהָמֵ֖ת אַל־תְּמִיתֻ֑הוּ וְזֹ֣את אֹמֶ֗רֶת גַּם־לִ֥י גַם־לָ֛ךְ לֹ֥א יִהְיֶ֖ה גְּזֹֽרוּ׃ (כז) וַיַּ֨עַן הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר תְּנוּ־לָהּ֙ אֶת־הַיָּל֣וּד הַחַ֔י וְהָמֵ֖ת לֹ֣א תְמִיתֻ֑הוּ הִ֖יא אִמּֽוֹ׃ (כח) וַיִּשְׁמְע֣וּ כָל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֶת־הַמִּשְׁפָּט֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר שָׁפַ֣ט הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וַיִּֽרְא֖וּ מִפְּנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ כִּ֣י רָא֔וּ כִּֽי־חָכְמַ֧ת אֱלֹהִ֛ים בְּקִרְבּ֖וֹ לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת מִשְׁפָּֽט׃

(16) Later two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him.

(23) The king said, “One says, ‘This is my son, the live one, and the dead one is yours’; and the other says, ‘No, the dead boy is yours, mine is the live one.’ (24) So the king gave the order, “Fetch me a sword.” A sword was brought before the king, (25) and the king said, “Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other.” (26) But the woman whose son was the live one pleaded with the king, for she was overcome with compassion for her son. “Please, my lord,” she cried, “give her the live child; only don’t kill it!” The other insisted, “It shall be neither yours nor mine; cut it in two!” (27) Then the king spoke up. “Give the live child to her,” he said, “and do not put it to death; she is its mother.” (28) When all Israel heard the decision that the king had rendered, they stood in awe of the king; for they saw that he possessed divine wisdom to execute justice.

Aviva Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep, p. 377

Where did Solomon learn to listen so well? In the midrashic narrative, the two women who flank the king, Bathsheba and Ruth, become more than witnesses: both are associated with the issues that are brought into brutal focus in the case of the harlots. Solomon is in fact the child born of the illicit relationship between David and Bathsheba; he is also the great-great-grandson of Ruth the Moabite, once liminal, abject, full of desire. Perhaps Solomon has learned from these women to inform law with narrative, to bring the incompatible universes into dynamic relation.

Perhaps Ruth, in particular -- who once chose for herself a new mother -- has been chosen by Solomon as his ancestor. When he is faced with the challenge of recuperating and sustaining a normative world, his version of law seeks to bridge the reality and the vision, what is and what may be. As Robert Cover says, “Choosing ancestry is always a serious business.” Solomon chooses Ruth the Moabite, as a constant reminder of the narrative anguish out of which transformations emerge. Perhaps her willingness to be effaced from the written text of her own narrative, to give up her child as an act of devotion, is what gives her the grace of the “true mother” in the moment of Solomon’s choice.