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Not Beyond Redemption: Bartenura on Megillas Ruth

Rabbi Osher Chaim Levene

The familiar story contained in Megillas Ruth takes on deeper allegorical meanings in this adaptation of the commentary of Rabbeinu Ovadia of Bartenura.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

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egillas 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.

Footnotes

1. “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). 

2. Bava Basra 14b 

3. Tosafos, Chagigah 17a, citing Yerushalmi 

4. Shir Hashirim 6:3 “I am to My Beloved and My Beloved is to me.” See also Ramchal, Daas Tevunos 130 

5. Shir Hashirim 3:11, Rashi ad. loc. 

6. 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. 

7. Yeshayahu 1:19 

8. Devarim 11:13–17 

9. Vayikra 26:44 

10. 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). 

11. 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

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