Parashat Shavuot / Once More, With Feeling

People must learn not to emulate the actions of Boaz, but rather to show their joy when they perform the commandments so that their actions will be recorded properly in the book that will be read at the End of Days.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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'Ruth in Boaz’s Field,' by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1828).
Yakov Z. Meyer

When Ruth comes to gather wheat in Boaz’s field, he receives her hospitably and instructs the harvesters to do the same and to let her drink from their water supply. The Book of Ruth then states: “And Boaz said unto her at meal-time: ‘Come hither, and eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the vinegar.’ And she sat beside the reapers; and he gathered up some parched corn to give to her, and she did eat and was satisfied, and left thereof” (Ruth 2:14).

The midrash on Boaz’s symbolic act of kindness comments as follows: “Rabbi Isaac, son of Marion, said: The Torah teaches us how to act. When we do something, we should do it with a happy heart; for, if Reuben had known God was recording his actions – as it is written, ‘And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand’ (Genesis 37:21) – he would have placed him [Joseph] on his shoulder and would have brought him back to his father.

“Had Aaron known that God was recording his actions – as it is written, ‘And also, behold, he cometh forth to meet thee; and when he seeth thee, he will be glad in his heart’ (Exodus 4:14) – he would have greeted Moses with drums and dances [that is, would have given him a festive welcome]. Had Boaz known that God was recording his actions – as it is written, ‘and he gathered up some parched corn to give to her’ – he would have brought her fattened calves and would have prepared a meal for her from their flesh’” (Leviticus Rabbah 34:8; Ruth Rabbah 5:6).

Boaz’s collection of a meager amount of corn which he gives to Ruth is compared to two other incidents in the Bible where charity is sparsely meted out. In the first incident, when Joseph’s brothers wanted to kill him because of his dreams, Reuben tried to save him and thus suggested that, instead of killing him, they just throw him into a pit. Had Reuben known, says Rabbi Isaac, that God was observing his actions – he would have tried harder and, carrying Joseph on his shoulders, would have brought him back to his father.

In the second incident, Aaron welcomed his brother Moses upon his return to Egypt from Midian. Aaron’s heart was full of joy but, had he known that God was documenting his activities, he would have been more exuberant and would have given Moses a triumphal welcome.

The third incident is the one we encounter in the Book of Ruth. Had Boaz known that God was watching him, he would have done much more than gather some dried-up corn for Ruth; he would have fed her the flesh of fattened calves.

The Torah describes these acts of parsimonious charity in order to teach us how to behave toward others: “When we do something, we should do it with a happy heart.” Documentation of the conduct of the above three biblical figures has a didactic purpose: It is intended not to slander our ancestors but rather to alter the behavior of their descendants, the Bible’s readers. According to this midrash, we must imagine that our actions are recorded, and must therefore show our feelings and enthusiasm when we fulfill God’s commandments.

A clear line exists between the biblical period, when its protagonists were unaware that their actions were being observed, and the post-biblical period, in which the Bible’s readers learn from the actions of these protagonists. This sharp distinction leads us to the second part of the above midrash: “Rabbi Cohen and Rabbi Joshua of Sachnin, citing Rabbi Levi, said: In the past, people’s actions were recorded by the prophets. Today, when there are no prophets, who records our actions? Elijah and the Messiah King, and God, standing beside them, adds his signature, as it is written, ‘Then they that feared the Lord spoke one with another; and the Lord hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him’ [Malachi 3:16]” (Vayikra Rabbah, Ruth Rabbah).

In Malachi’s vision of the End of Days, those who fear God speak with one another and their words are recorded in God’s presence in a book of remembrance. In the future, the Almighty will appear, will read that book, will separate the wicked from the God-fearing, and punish the former and reward the latter. However, before God appears, Elijah will emerge, as it is written, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the land with utter destruction” (Mal. 3:23-24).

Elijah will persuade the sinners to mend their ways, so that God will not punish them. In the midrash, Rabbi Levi connects the recording of the words of the God-fearers with the actions of Elijah, who will cause the sinners to repent, and concludes that Elijah is the figure who, together with the Messiah King, will write the book of remembrance, which God will sign. This process of documentation is the final stage before the carrying out of the promised judgment.

In Seder Olam Rabbah, a 2nd-century chronology detailing biblical events beginning with the Creation, Elijah is also referred to as the figure who will document the actions of mortals: “In the second year of the reign of King Ahaziahu, Elijah went into hiding and will emerge only when the Messiah comes, and, in the era of the Messiah, he will again go into hiding until Gog appears. Until then he will write down the deeds of all the generations” (Seder Olam Rabbah, Section 17).

The above midrash presents the distinction between the biblical period and our era. The text that the prophets wrote is the Bible and the three examples of the giving of miserly charity appear in Genesis, Exodus and Ruth, respectively. In the post-biblical period, Elijah will sit in his study and will record the conduct of all humanity in a text that, in future, will serve as a second Bible – as a Torah that will be revealed only when God appears in order to judge humanity.

The Bible is a book that records the actions of people who are unaware of its literary documentation. Thus, it seeks to remold the post-biblical world, whose inhabitants will read the text, and will learn that, even in their later era, there is someone who documents everything. People must learn not to emulate the actions of Boaz, but rather to show their joy openly when they perform the commandments so that their actions will be recorded properly in the book that will be read at the End of Days.

The experience of reading is at the very heart of the sages’ lives: They read the Bible again and again, deciphering its text endlessly and seeking to learn from it how to conduct themselves so that they can extract themselves from their gloomy political and social situation. However, in the above midrash, it emerges that the experience of reading reflects hidden desires – the desire of those who are bereft of prophecies and feel that they have been banished from history, and the desire to have someone read about them.