OF ESTHER AND RUS*
We have two Megillos named after women: Esther and Rus. The difference in the roles which these two play in their respective stories could not be more striking. Esther very clearly stands at the center of the Purim story. Once she appears upon the scene, it is she who initiates, she who guides and she who ultimately saves her people.
There is no doubt at all: Esther is the heroine of Megillas Esther.
By contrast, we are hard put to find any active role for Rus, as the story of the ground-laying of the Davidic line unfolds. She seems to be no more than a pawn, moved around by Naomi and Boaz as they accomplish their aspirations.
It is Naomi, her mother-in-law, who opens the drama: “My daughter! Ought I not search out for you a better situation …?” (Megillas Rus 3:1).
The entire plan of action is then laid out by Naomi. Rus’s role exhausts itself in simple acquiescence: “I will do whatever you tell me” (Rus 3:5).
It is true that later Rus does express the purpose behind her strange appearance at Boaz’s feet–“I am Rus your maidservant; spread then your garment over your maidservant” (Ibid. 3:9) but after that, the initiative belongs entirely to Boaz. Rus has only two more acts to perform. She holds on to the cloth while Boaz gives her six measures of barley (Ibid. 3:15), and upon her return home she tells Naomi what transpired (Ibid. 3:16-17). In the steps leading up to her marriage to Boaz, in the marriage itself, and even in the crucial birth and naming of their child, she does not appear in the text at all.
The drama’s final act is the most striking:
Then Boaz took Rus and she became his wife and he came to her, and Hashem granted her conception, and she bore a son.
Then the women said to Naomi, “May Hashem, Who did not this day withhold a redeemer from you, be blessed. Let him be given a name in Israel. He will be a comfort to you and support you in your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is better for you than seven sons, has borne him.”
Then Naomi took the child and placed him at her bosom and became his nurse.
The neighboring women gave him a name, as if to say, “a son was born to Naomi.” And so they called him Oved. He is the father of Yishai, who is the father of Dovid. (Rus 4:13-21)
The passage speaks for itself. It makes it perfectly clear that it is Naomi, not Rus, who is the central figure.
In Rus’s original determination to leave her home and country, it was – at least as far as her language conveys – her loyalty to Naomi that governed her decision. She is Rus the loving daughter-in-law, the adjunct to Naomi, rather than Rus the independent woman acting on her own religious convictions.
How then, if it is Naomi who is the salient figure throughout the story, is Rus its true heroine? Why, after all, is the book named after Rus?
What makes Rus the heroine of Rus?
The question apparently contains its own answer. Rus is the heroine because she is essentially passive. Megillas Rus is the story of a woman who was strong enough to practice self-abnegation when it was needed. Rus is the heroine because Naomi occupies center stage.
Is the association not obvious? The matriarch of the monarchy from whom the Ne’im Zemiros Yisrael, sweet singer of Israel, is to descend allows Naomi to call the tune. She is content to be the instrument through which Naomi’s sweetness is projected, even as Dovid will one day be the harp through which the sweet harmonies of Israel resonate.
Rus contributed to Yehudah’s lineage that which he himself had not been capable of conveying. His nature was to bow before God; her contribution was to permit a fellow-human to shine.
Together, they would produce the Ne’im Zemiros Yisrael, the sweet singer of Israel.
*Note: Original Hebrew and Aramaic text which appears in the book has been translated into English and footnotes have been removed for brevity.