Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Learning From Our Bubby Rus

Imagine that you lived long ago and had the great zechus of visiting Yerushalayim to meet Shlomo Hamelech himself. Sitting next to him is an extremely old woman, ancient but regal, and you whisper to your guide, “Who is that?” To your shock, you discover that you are also about to greet Rus, the great-great-grandmother of the king. Indeed, Chazal (Bava Basra 91b) tell us that Shlomo not only set up a throne for his mother Batsheva (Melachim I 2:19), but also for “the mother of royalty,” Rus HaMoaviah. What was the significance of Rus' place next to Shlomo Hamelech, of her longevity, and, most importantly, of her place in Klal Yisroel and in the holy Yom Tov of Shavuos?

Rabbi Nosson Scherman, in his wonderful “Overview” to the ArtScroll Rus, explores some of the reasons why she was chosen to be one of the “seeds of Moshiach.” It is an essay well worth reading and rereading for Yom Tov. But there is another aspect of the relationship between Rus and Shavuos that can have a powerful impact upon our personal kabbolas haTorah this year. We know that the concept of yichus – the purity of Jewish generational continuity – is extremely important. When it comes to Mattan Torah, it played a special role, as proven by a special day of preparation to receive the Torah called Yom Hameyuchas, when we established our identity as a nation.

Yet, the saga of Rus teaches us the even more important lesson of the power of the individual in accepting the Torah. The story is told of the Chassidic rebbe who asked one of his visitors, “Who are you?” The man began to answer that his father had been a chossid of the rebbe’s predecessor, as had his grandfather before him. Not appearing impressed, the rebbe responded, “I asked you who you are, not about your father and grandfather.” Indeed, there is a profound paradox throughout our history about balancing zechus avos, connection to all the earlier generations, and the need to reaffirm and reaccept the Torah for ourselves.

This need for equilibrium and symmetry between the old and the new may be the beginning of our understanding of one of the connections between Rus and Shavuos. Rus was a giyores, and all of Klal Yisroel achieved the status of geirim at Har Sinai (Krisos 9a). We constantly need to connect to the avos and imahos, even as we must remember that at Har Sinai each and every one of us had to personally commit to Hashem and to the Torah. The first level of our connecting to Rus on Shavuos is our annual reminder, as we imagine ourselves at the throne of the ima shel malchus, that we, too, will be mekabel the yoke of mitzvos, no matter how difficult or incomprehensible they sometimes may be.

Perhaps even more importantly, Rus herself and all that she represents remind us that neither our background nor previous actions matter. Shavuos and Mattan Torah are matters that can erase any previous negatives and taints. Rus herself came from one of the most odious of nations. Great Torah scholars thought that she could not even enter into the fold, let alone become the “mother of royalty” (Yevamos 77), yet she prevailed and became the progenitor of Moshiach. To be sure, Rus is always placed in the same context as Tamar, as the Radomsker (Tiferes Shlomo, Likkutim) teaches that the word utemuraso, in the posuk that teaches the prohibition to exchange one animal’s holiness for another, contains the same letters as “Tamar veRus.” But this is, of course, the point. Both Tamar and Rus represent women of great kedushah, who were nearly rejected because of some perceived flaw, but went on to become mainstays of the structure of Klal Yisroel and Moshiach. This phenomenon, which as many meforshim point out reaches back to the daughters of Lot as well, should give chizuk to those who fear that they came late to Yiddishkeit or to the proper level required to be of importance to Klal Yisroel. We all have a place, and can even occupy a very large place, in the structure of Klal Yisroel, according to where we are at the moment.

The second level of appreciating Rus’ role in Klal Yisroel may be learned from the Maharal, who writes (Netzach Yisroel 32 and Chiddushei Aggados, Bava Kamma 38) that Moshiach had to derive from the nations of Amon and Moav, because Moshiach is considered to be a “new fruit.” He explains that this havayah chadashah, this totally new entity, had to be derived externally, not from within the generic Klal Yisroel, so that Moshiach could be generated as the pristine and fresh being he needs to be.

The Sheim MiShmuel (Shavuos 5670) quotes his grandfather, the Kotzker Rebbe, who says that even malchus, royalty, itself cannot be derived exclusively from Klal Yisroel, because Klal Yisroel is so inherently unified that one Jew cannot rule over another without the “grafting” of monarchy from a foreign source such as Amon and Moav. Again, we have a powerful source for turning negatives into positives through the power of Torah.

Furthermore, since at Mattan Torah we became a “kingdom of kohanim,” we can borrow another ostensible negative for our newly royal selves. Should royalty in Torah come from absolute perfection? Let us listen to the conclusion of Chazal (Yoma 22b) concerning the comparison of the fate of the kingdoms of Shaul and Dovid. “Why, the Gemara asks, “did the kingdom of Dovid endure and that of Shaul did not?” The Gemara answers that the kingdom of Shaul was too perfect, while that of Dovid had a kupah shel sheratzim, a skeleton in the closet.” What was that skeleton? It was Rus of Moav, whose ability to enter into Klal Yisroel was under attack for decades and even centuries.

The Chizkuni (Shemos 6) uses this concept to explain why Hashem chose Moshe Rabbeinu as the ultimate leader and rebbi of Klal Yisroel when his parents constituted a union – a man and his aunt – that would later be forbidden by the Torah. He explains that just as Dovid Hamelech’s genealogy could not be too perfect so that his malchus would endure, so was it with Moshe Rabbeinu, whose background was actually enhanced by what appeared to be a defect. This, too, is a reminder to all of us never to look at our own past, let alone that of others, but to concentrate on what we need to do now to perfect ourselves in every way. Indeed, the Ben Ish Chai (Ben Yehoyada to Bava Basra ibid.) understands the chair for Rus next to Dovid and later Shlomo as a poignant reminder to be humble as a ruler, since they, too, came from unpretentious backgrounds (see more sources in the Ohr Yisroel journal, Nissan 5775, pp. 213-236).

Finally, there is an element of both hope and prayer in the reading of Megillas Rus on Shavuos. The Sefas Emes (Shavuos 5642, page 34) quotes his grandfather, the Chiddushei Harim, who says that we read Rus on Shavuos to “join Torah and tefillah together, because Dovid Hamelech was the embodiment of prayer, as he said ‘va’ani tefillah.’” Perhaps one aspect of this profound thought is that just as Rus lifted herself out of the contamination of Moav and Dovid Hamelech used tefillah to constantly improve himself, so should we access Megillas Rus every Shavuos to undergo our own spiritual renewal through Torah and tefillah to become worthy of this incredible experience of receiving the Torah in humility and purity.

May we meet our bubbe, Rus, soon to thank her with her ainikel, Moshiach Tzidkeinu, bemeheirah beyomeinu.



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