Not Beyond Redemption: Bartenura on Megillas Ruth| June 14, 2016
The familiar story contained in Megillas Ruth takes on deeper allegorical meanings in this adaptation of the commentary of Rabbeinu Ovadia of Bartenura.
Megillas Ruth documents the stirring story of the Moabite convert who followed her destitute Jewish mother-in-law Naomi back to the Holy Land. Boaz, a great Jewish leader and relative of Ruth, agreed to redeem her as part of efforts to reclaim her dead husband’s family estate. Their marriage resulted in the birth of Oved, the grandfather of King David.
Despite being a relatively short work, Megillas Ruth is thematically very broad. It contains no overt halachic laws or timeless prophecies. Yet it touches upon important concepts including compassion, loyalty, and the reward for kindness. Nevertheless, its central purpose — and the principal reason for its composition by Shmuel Hanavi — was to record the lineage of King David, whose dates of birth and death fall on the festival of Shavuos, when this work is customarily read.
In this essay, we will adapt and develop some of the ideas contained within an allegorical commentary to Megillas Ruth authored by Rabbeinu Ovadiah of Bartenura, the medieval Italian scholar best known for his Mishnah commentary.
Introduction: A Journey of Exile and Redemption
A simple reading of the story relates a dramatic tale of exile and tragedy, alienation and despair, culminating in hope, return, and salvation. But a deeper reading of Megillas Ruth charts Klal Yisrael’s tempestuous relationship with Hashem, one that would be played out in world history and feature a turbulent journey of national exile and Messianic redemption.
The human metaphor of marriage is used to describe the timeless bond between Hashem and Klal Yisrael. Their monumental wedding day was celebrated on Shavuos, when Hashem gave Klal Yisrael the Torah at Sinai. The loving relationship in their marital union would result in the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, resting among Klal Yisrael. In the wilderness, this was manifest in the encampment stationed around the Mishkan. Later on, it would be apparent within the Beis Hamikdash as Klal Yisrael peacefully dwelled inside their homeland. Here they would also experience nevuah, prophecy, as Hashem communicated His word to the righteous. In this setting, Klal Yisrael would be subject to a special Hashgachah pratis, Divine Providence, as direct recipients of His blessing and influence.
All the same, this relationship would be severely tested in the light of Klal Yisrael’s later unfaithfulness. Like a woman of ill repute, Klal Yisrael would resemble a disloyal wife who strayed away from her Beloved to serve foreign gods and to violate the dictates of the Torah. This would result in Hashem withdrawing His benevolence and Divine influence from them — resulting in a parallel physical and spiritual blockage.
Famine would strike the land. There would be the loss of human royalty as a symbol of Divine royalty. The Shechinah manifest in the miracles inside the Beis Hamikdash would disappear. Prophecy would be discontinued. Persistence of Klal Yisrael’s misdemeanors meant matters would deteriorate further and end tragically, with the Beis Hamikdash destroyed and Klal Yisrael exiled. Hashem’s banishment of Klal Yisrael from Eretz Yisrael resembled how a husband sends his wife away. It seemed that the marriage would now end in divorce. But this would not be so.
Although Hashem drove Klal Yisrael from their home, He would go into exile together with them. Hashem promised never to reject them and never to exchange them for another people, and the Chosen Nation would always remain that — chosen. Their marriage would even survive periods of assimilation and turning their back on Hashem. Klal Yisrael would continue to suffer in exile until finally awakening from their spiritual slumber to take stock of their dreadful fate and take the necessary steps to repent and return home.
Klal Yisrael could forever place their reliance upon Hashem, their Redeemer, to send them Mashiach, a human king and scion of the House of David, to redeem them, even if they were not deserving. The dispersed Klal Yisrael would then return from their exile in the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash where His Glory and Kingship would be universally felt.
Actually, if they merited it by their righteousness, Klal Yisrael would have the ability to bring about the final redemption on their own, prior to its preordained time. But even if not, they were “not beyond redemption,” Hashem had promised to redeem Klal Yisrael from their lengthy exile, as He did at the Exodus, even if they were not meritorious on their own accord. This time around, however, Hashem will ensure that there is a geulah shleimah, a complete Redemption.
These concepts are symbolically explored within the narrative of Megillas Ruth.
Of Famine and Exile
Megillas Ruth opens with the bleak scene of a devastating famine that struck Eretz Yisrael (1:1). As a physical reflection of Klal Yisrael’s spiritual condition, the drought signaled the cursed, lawless period that they sinfully lived through, such that they were judged to be spiritually impoverished. Hence, they were subject to a divine edict of din, Heavenly judgment, symbolized by the historic reference of “in the time of the Judges” (1:1) — judges involved in a judiciary process inside a courtroom.
The blocked heavens indicate some level of marital breakdown between Klal Yisrael and Hashem. In this calamitous state, Klal Yisrael was no longer suitable to stand as a direct beneficiary of Hashem’s blessing inside their homeland. Plentiful crops gave way to arid, parched fields. Starvation became rampant. This story uncannily plays out according to the exact punishment as foretold by the Torah: no rainfall, no produce, ending in their destruction and being driven out of the land.
Elimelech/Hashem and Naomi/Yisrael
This famine led to the emigration of an ish (man) — a term that is elsewhere used as a euphemism for Hashem. The name “Elimelech” is a combination of “Keili” (my G-d) and melech (king) — the G-d to Whom Kingship belongs. The departure of Elimelech/Hashem from Eretz Yisrael is a reflection of how Hashem and His Shechinah would also go into exile together with them.
Accompanying Elimelech/Hashem into exile was his wife Naomi and their two sons (1:2). The name Naomi is a symbolic reference to Hashem’s beloved: Knesses Yisrael, Congregation of Israel, which are usually characterized by their “pleasantness” (ne’imus).
Outside of her native soil, Naomi/Yisrael was beset by one disaster after another. Elimelech’s passing left her alone and forlorn, making it appear as if Hashem had abandoned her. Disconnected from her spiritual roots and alienated as a stranger in a foreign land, the heart-breaking cost was that her children (Machlon and Kilyon) learned from the sinful ways of the gentile nations. They weakened their connection to Hashem and tragically assimilated.
Suffering and affliction similarly follow Naomi/ Yisrael into their exile. This was alluded to in the names of the non-Jewish Moabite wives (1:4): “Orpah” reflects how Klal Yisrael had turned their “nape” (oref) away from Hashem and “Ruth” how they were “satiated” (rov’oy) with mishaps. Further tragedy ensued. The family fortune was lost and Naomi’s intermarried sons died childless. All appeared lost. In her eyes, Naomi/Yisrael thought that she had now lost the “pleasantness” of her Jewish identity, asking to be called Mara, “bitterness” (1:19–20). Moreover, Naomi was the epitome of the solitary widow described at the opening of Megillas Eichah who inconsolably wept at her misfortune and lamented her wretched fate.
Return of Naomi/Yisrael
Still, the relationship would not be irreparably broken. Actually, the Shechinah would never depart from Klal Yisrael even when estranged and forced to wander into exile. Hashem has not — and will not — abandon His beloved nation. His mercy and compassion has no limits. Nor would Klal Yisrael, in turn, ever give up hope on Him. Theirs is a marriage that will endure, never to be dissolved.
Mirroring her persona of Yisrael, Naomi tried to escape her wretched fate. She longed to return to Hashem and to go back home — the same national sentiments that Klal Yisrael similarly has felt, and continues to feel, throughout the course of their agonizingly long exile. Toward this end, Naomi/Yisrael took the necessary steps. Included in her efforts was the conscious decision to sever all ties with her past non-Jewish influences. Naomi/Yisrael sought to part company with her Moabite daughters-in-law by beginning the journey on the road back to Eretz Yisrael (1:8–13). Though Orpah turned her back to head home, Ruth adamantly insisted she had no intention of separating from Naomi.
Ruth so fully identified herself with Naomi/Yisrael that she refused to let go, vowing that only death would separate them (1:16–17). Indeed, Ruth so wholly sublimated her will to that of her mother-in-law Naomi such that she almost “became” her. From here on in, the self-effacing Ruth now became the extension of Naomi’s personification of Klal Yisrael. It was as if the two women functioned as one entity; Ruth later declared to Naomi, “Whatever you say to me I will do” (3:5). Together, they undertook the uncertain journey of returning back to the Holy Land in the knowledge that their destinies were intertwined.
Boaz/Hashem: The Powerful Redeemer
Mention is made of another ish back in Beis Lechem: Boaz. He would be described as “the mighty man of valor” (2:1) in whose fields Ruth ended up gleaning to procure food for herself and her mother-in-law (2:3). Hashem’s representation as the “ish” in the persona of “Elimelech” (in Klal Yisrael’s earlier acceptance of Hashem’s Kingship) had been discontinued with Elimelech’s passing and departure from Eretz Yisrael. Nevertheless, the return of Naomi/Yisrael escorted by Ruth marked a re-forging of the eternal relationship, a reaffirmation of the everlasting marriage between Hashem and Klal Yisrael.
This time round, however, the persona of an ish would be attributed to Boaz — a reference to Hashem, Who is destined to rule over Yisrael with “power” (oz, “power,” etymologically related to Boaz) to redeem the remnant of Klal Yisrael from exile. Naomi/Yisrael would refer to Boaz/Hashem as “our redeemer” (2:20) — to relate to Hashem in His capacity of Messianic Redeemer.
The strained relationship, earlier evident in famine and exile, meant Klal Yisrael would no longer receive Divine blessing in a direct fashion. Instead, it would be indirectly channeled through the non-Jewish nations. So even once Naomi/Yisrael returned back to Eretz Yisrael at the end of the famine, there was now only a partial measure of food available — some bread dipped in vinegar (2:14), rather than the fullness of blessing from “a land flowing with milk and honey” — and this would be indirectly received through intermediaries: Naomi provided by the non-Jewess Ruth (2:2) who, in turn, received it from Boaz’s lads (2:15–16).
Naomi instructed Ruth to pay Boaz a nighttime visit on the threshing floor by sleeping at his feet and uncovering them (3:1-4). He awoke with a shock at midnight as Ruth petitioned him to “spread out your robe/wings over your handmaid, for you are a redeemer” (3:9).
Ruth — acting as a perfect stand-in for Naomi/Yisrael — slept at Boaz’s feet (3:6, 8). This provides an allusion of the true marital closeness between husband and wife, between Hashem and Yisrael, who are conversant with each other in the dead of night.
The symbolism of “midnight” is highly evocative of the most historical redemption: Yetzias Mitzrayim, the Exodus. It was at the stroke of midnight that Hashem famously redeemed the Jewish People. The Tenth Plague struck to kill all the Egyptian firstborns as Pharaoh finally relented to end the exile and let the Israelites free. Nevertheless, this redemption was incomplete insofar as Klal Yisrael would, several generations later, following their settlement of Eretz Yisrael, be once again condemned to exile from which they would require a subsequent “second” redemption.
Ruth petitioned Boaz/Hashem to be responsible for Klal Yisrael’s final redemption by asking him to “spread out His robe” (3:9) — literally, “wings.” This is a hint for Hashem to take them tachas kanfei haShechinah, “under the wings of the Shechinah.” She continued by pointing out to Boaz/Hashem: “You are the true Redeemer” (3:9). This would itself be an indication how Klal Yisrael anxiously yearns to experience the final Redemption that marks their complete deliverance.
In response, Boaz asked Ruth to stay the night and wait until the next morning (3:13). To engender a complete redemption, one that is final and absolute, required the arrival of morning. Figuratively, the “coming of the light of day” indicates the clarity and illumination that is associated with “redemption” and “revelation.” This will banish the “darkness of night” that typically denotes a state of “exile” and “concealment.”
Final Redemption: “Predestined Time” or “Earlier”?
Boaz/Hashem willingly conceded how the household of Naomi/Yisrael had to be redeemed. The only question would be about the timing of this redemption.
The Gemara states: “Mashiach ben Dovid is destined to come to a generation that is either completely virtuous or to a generation that is completely guilty.” Chazal discuss the two distinct situations of when the Final Redemption will arrive corresponding to two words in the following pasuk: “I am Hashem. In its time (b’ito), I shall hasten it (achishena).”
One possibility is that it can either come about at a final predestined date: b’ito. Hashem would designate this date for redemption, even if Klal Yisrael were to still be in a sinful state. Still, Hashem promised to be their Redeemer, come what may, for the sake of His Name and His vow. This is implied in the statement: “For Hashem will not cast off/forsake His people for His great name’s sake.”
The clear major drawback to this redemption is that the timing falls outside of man’s control. It exclusively depends upon Hashem. It will come, possibly only in the distant future, at the moment when He determines that this end date should occur.
There is another option. If meritorious, Klal Yisrael has the ability to hasten the redemption’s arrival to an earlier time than what is predestined: achishena. There have been numerous occasions in Jewish history when different historic personalities (including Shimshon, Shlomo, Chizkiyahu, and Bar Kochva) could have become Mashiach if only they and their era had been worthy.
Initially, Ruth opted to exclusively place full reliance upon Boaz/Hashem to be the Redeemer of Klal Yisrael at its preordained time. In response, Boaz/Hashem argued that she would do well to perhaps consider an alternative scenario — namely that there was “a closer redeemer” at hand (3:12). In other words, there could be an earlier redemption if Klal Yisrael voluntarily returned to Hashem through repentance and good deeds to bring about the final redemption through their own merit. This basis of redemption is “closer” insofar as it could transpire at any time; it could even come “today if they listen to His voice.”
Consequently, Boaz/Hashem suggested that Ruth sleep there the remainder of the night. “Return to the state of exile,” as alluded to in the nighttime, “to see if the morning brings redemption in its wake; you can earn your own salvation at an earlier date.” Should this option not come to pass, Klal Yisrael then had the fallback position of Boaz/Hashem fulfilling His vow to enter afterwards and redeem Klal Yisrael Himself.
The next day, Boaz/Hashem explained before the elders that any “redemption” of the estate had to be a complete and lasting one; it would also have to acquisition of the field and involve a marriage with Ruth to establish “a name of the dead on the inheritance” (4:5). The word for kinyan, “acquisition” also being used in the context of “redemption,” with Klal Yisrael called “the inheritance of Hashem.” The final redemption will have the world universally proclaim Hashem as King.
Like Ploni Almoni the “closer redeemer,” Klal Yisrael would not be confident of their ability to realize the final “redemption” based on their own merit alone. They harbored a justifiable fear that they might end up ruining their inheritance (4:6). They believed attempts to herald the final redemption by themselves would not be realized. In actual fact, this feeling was not without a basis. The capability of Klal Yisrael to experience redemption reliant upon merits would be depleted during the period of King Chizkiyah.
Due to the wickedness of many Jews, there was a legitimate fear that Klal Yisrael would be subject to Divine retribution and that this would cause the loss of many within the Chosen Nation. They did not consider themselves able to bring about an earlier redemption based on their merit alone. In this sense, Ploni Almoni personifies the frustration of potential earlier redemption not being realized — where the prospect to bring about the Final Redemption was another “missed opportunity” that passed him by. This despair was prophetically expressed by Yaakov Avinu foreseeing the initial success but subsequent demise of Shimshon, whereupon he declared: “For your salvation, O Hashem, I await”.
Mashiach ben David
In the end, Boaz/Hashem follows up afterward to come as the ultimate Redeemer. He will step up to redeem the family estate of Naomi/Yisrael. It will re-forge the relationship with Hashem and restore Elimelech’s legacy (4:9) — human kingship as a reflection of the Kingship of Hashem. This would find expression in the union of Ruth and Boaz, resulting in the royalty of the Davidic dynasty.
King David would awake at midnight to sing out to Hashem. King David called out at “midnight” — the time when his great-grandmother Ruth encountered Boaz on the threshing floor — to pray for the Final Redemption destined to come with the illumination of morning and its imagery of redemption to universally reveal the Glory of Hashem as manifest in the Shechinah. This would be realized by Mashiach, a scion of King David, as Hashem’s human agent to implement a geulah shleimah.
No matter Klal Yisrael’s spiritual state, they are “not beyond redemption.” The marriage between Hashem and Klal Yisrael at Sinai on Shavuos will be lovingly reconstituted by the ancestors and descendants of King David — the personality who is integrally identified with this day.
This essay is dedicated l’illui nishmas my cousin Mrs. Devorah Goldstein (née Plym) a”h of Lakewood
 “Rav Zeira said: This scroll [Ruth] was not written to explain impurity or purity, forbidden or permissible: so then why was this scroll written? It is in order to teach the good reward given to those who perform acts of loving-kindness” (Ruth Rabbah 2:14).
 Bava Basra 14b
 Tosafos, Chagigah 17a, citing Yerushalmi
 Shir Hashirim 6:3 “I am to My Beloved and My Beloved is to me.” See also Ramchal, Daas Tevunos 130
 Shir Hashirim 3:11, Rashi ad. loc.
 This has its parallel in every Jewish marriage between man and woman where the loving relationship is the cause for the Shechinah to similarly rest in their house.
 Yeshayahu 1:19
 Devarim 11:13–17
 Vayikra 26:44
 See Ruth Rabbah, Pesikta 3, how Hashem refused to exchange them for another people as He had distinguished Klal Yisrael to be his treasured nation (Devarim 26:18).
 The coming of Mashiach will resemble the redemption from Egypt where Hashem redeemed Klal Yisrael — and not a moment later — to prevent them from sinking to a spiritually low point from which they could never escape. See Rav Elchonon Wasserman, Be’urei Aggados, and Beis HaLevi, Parshas Bo
 Devarim 11:16-17; see the Admonitions contained within Toras Kohanim (Vayikra 26:14-43) and in Mishneh Torah (Devarim 28:15-68).
 The most famous example of this is in Az Yashir where it says Hashem ish milchamah, “Hashem is a Man of War” (Shemos 15:3).
 This is a variation of the Midrash’s interpretation of the name “Elimelech” saying elai melech, “kingship is due to me” (Ruth Rabbah 2:5)
 The name “Orpah” is interpreted to reflect how “she turned her back (oref) on her mother-in-law” (Ruth Rabbah 2:9).
 The Gemara interprets the name Ruth as “[mother of King David] who would “satiate” (rava) Hashem with songs and praises” (Bava Basra 14b).
 Eichah 1:1–6. See Rokach, Ruth 1.
 Megillah 29a
 Devarim 11:9
 This is elegantly reflected in the instructions given by Naomi to Ruth when she would go down into the threshing floor (3:3–5). There are variances between the kesiv, traditional spelling of the word, written in the first person (as if Naomi herself would be going) and the k’rei, spoken word as pronounced in the second person (telling Ruth what to do). The absence of the word alai, “to me” (3:5) implies that Ruth sublimated herself to be dependence upon Naomi by removing her will from the equation.
 Berachos 3a
 Shemos 12:29
 Yeshayahu 11:11. This is mentioned in Kedushah for Shabbos Mussaf in the phrase v’yiga’elu shenis, “redeem us a second time”.
 This phrase is often used to denote refuge and conversion to Yiddishkeit where one draws closer to come under the protective shelter of Hashem (e.g. Tehillim 36:8). See Ruth Rabbah 5:4
 See Rashi, Sanhedrin 94a: Maharal, Netzach Yisrael 18
 Sanhedrin 98a
 Yeshayah 60:22. See Sanhedrin 98a
 Shmuel I, 12:22
 This parallels the statement “For Hashem will not forsake His people, neither will He forsake His inheritance” (Tehillim 94:14), which implies redemption comes in the merit of Klal Yisrael retaining their stature as Hashem’s inheritance.
 Tehillim 95:7
 See Shemos 15:16.
 Devarim 32:9
 Zechariah 14:9
 Sanhedrin 98b
 Bereishis 49:18. Interestingly, we find that Shimshon’s salvation was also at midnight (Shoftim 15:3), but did not continue throughout the night until the morning to signify a complete state of redemption.
 Tehillim 119:62
 The Midrash notes how King David composed this very pasuk to praise the turning of fortunes experienced by Ruth at “midnight” when Boaz advised of her acceptance to join Klal Yisrael (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:12).
(Originally featured in Kolmus, Issue 36)
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