Full disclosure: you will find my given name, Ruth, on my birth certificate.
When I was 30 I legally changed my name to Rebecca, Reba for short.
In English “Ruth” means compassion. It is the antonym of ruth-less—cruel, callous and uncaring. So why wouldn’t I want such a beautiful name?
It turns out it was all a big misunderstanding.
But first, the story.
In a time of famine, a woman, Naomi, her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons move to Moab. Both sons marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. Shortly thereafter, Naomi’s husband dies, and then her two sons die as well.
We’ll pause here, because something is already a bit odd. In Jewish culture family means a lot. To this day, matchmakers want to know all about a prospective match’s family down to the last sibling; anything less than picture-perfect constitutes a mark against that match. Rabbinic dynasties grow through intermarriage; the strength of each family helps assure a successful union and the passing on of a kind of “spiritual DNA.” As a people, we continually claim the blessings of Avraham, our Father, and Sarah, our Mother, and we rely on their merit to weigh in our favor in times of need.
How strange, then, that one of the greatest Jewish heroines comes from one of the worst families. Not only was Ruth a Moabite, her father was King Eglon, leader of the confederacy of Moab, Ammon and Amalek, and responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews during the time of the Book of Judges.
It’s like having a matchmaker present the daughter of Mussolini as a potential match for your son the accountant. That’s a tough sell. And yet the legend of Ruth holds a place of pride in the midst of this culture that’s all about family. What is going on here? Let’s return to the story to look for answers…
Impoverished and grieving, Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem. She urges her daughters-in-law to go home and find themselves new husbands amongst their own people, with her blessings. Orpah returns to her family. Ruth famously replies to Naomi:
“Wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.”
Naomi and Ruth travel to Bethlehem, where Ruth goes out to glean in the fields owned by Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz. When Boaz shows her kindness, allowing her to take as much as she needs (even leaving extra grain on the field for her to find), to drink the water, and offers his protection from the men in the field, Ruth asks: “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, seeing I am a stranger?”
Boaz replies: “It has been fully related to me all that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband; and how you have left your father and your mother, and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom you knew not before.”
Ruth continues to glean in Boaz’s fields. One night, counseled by her mother-in-law—in a did-I-just-read-what-I’m-
When I think of Ruth, I see in my mind’s eye a flaming arrow, brilliantly traveling toward its mark, burning all else in its path with all the outer details simply fueling the arrow’s arc in space, its brilliance illuminated only as it streaks toward its destiny.
Ruth moves forward, only forward. She doesn’t turn back, like Orpah, nor does she wait for guarantees, contracts, and assurances. Bereft of political power or familial clout, Ruth offers up her greatest and only asset: herself. Her vulnerability was in fact an empowered choice as she was in full possession of her being and her free will.
In the story, Boaz does right by her. In marrying Ruth, Boaz reinstates Naomi’s heritage by purchasing what had been Naomi’s family’s land and marrying her son’s widow. Thus, through her actions, Ruth has redeemed their names from the dead. Yet it is her name we remember.
Ruth is the only woman in the Torah to be called a “Woman of Valor,” the laudatory description detailed in a poem of the same name that is customarily recited every Sabbath evening in praise of the Jewish wife. The poem emphasizes resourcefulness, praising the woman’s skill and activities rather than her good name or fair looks. The woman of valor is not the beneficiary of a familial inheritance, rather, like Ruth, she is the font of goodness for her family.
Not only does she redeem her in-laws’ names and property, she is destined to become the great-grandmother of King David and the great, great-grandmother of King Solomon, from which royal lineage, it is said, will come the Messiah—a font of goodness, indeed.
Ruth, born of a most undesirable family, becomes the matriarch of perhaps the most glorious family in Jewish history. The ultimate self-made woman. Ruth’s power is neither political nor social, it comes from within. Yes, she has a helper in Naomi and a hero in Boaz—nonetheless, it may be fairly said that Ruth won her own place in history.
With or without Ruth’s hardships, each of us, even those of us from the best families, must at some point create our own personal relationship with ourselves and with our spirituality. Our relationship to our spiritual center is one-to-one, and it is up to us to determine what that partnership will be.
Ruth embraced that partnership, and everything followed from there. When she left her family to marry Naomi’s son, she left them for good. She resisted Naomi’s entreaties to return home simply because the situation was difficult. Most would turn back, yet Ruth followed her heart. Hers is not the obedience that runs back home, rather, it is the obedience to a higher calling.
Nor does she ask for worldly approval or reward. The final line of A Woman of Valor reads:
“Let her own works praise her at the gates.”
And, indeed, Ruth’s life speaks for itself.
The story of Ruth asserts that we needn’t carry a burden of shame or blame from the past, and that character, not background, is what matters most.
We learn that we can change the course of our lives. We can even redeem the past and affect the course of history.
Ruth’s humble standing as a poor widow, far from homeland and family, has echoes in another heroine, the orphan girl who becomes Queen Esther, who then becomes a savior of her people. Both stories speak of the importance of free will and self-determination.
The Book of Ruth is customarily read during the holiday of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah—that moment in time when the Jewish people, as a nation, “converted” and sealed our covenant. Like Ruth, the Moabite convert, at Sinai we all made a vow to cleave to our G-d and to follow G-d, no matter where the journey leads us.
I grew up in a secular, atheist home, knowing only the barest outline of Ruth’s story, little beyond the famous quote, “Wherever you go, I will go.” It seemed to say that Ruth deferred to the needs of others—“Wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge”—and bowed down to the stories and beliefs of others—“your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d.”
My upbringing echoed that interpretation. As a child I actually felt proud to exhibit no needs of my own. I was convinced that my selflessness would be rewarded, and I tried to be the easy, undemanding one amid the chaos.
I have made peace with my past, yet as a 30-year-old I was so tired. I had put other’s needs before my own and yet the rewards had not followed my life was not at all what I hoped it would be. My name, the beautiful word for compassion, actually made me feel sick to my stomach, for it seemed to say that my turn would never come.
I changed my name in an attempt to change my luck. Hillel’s wisdom, “If I am not for me, who will be?” was the teaching I needed. I had to find a way to be for me, even in order to be of service to others, for when I am there for me, only then can I be present for others as well.
I am human, made of clay, just like you. I also have the breath of the Divine in me, and like you, I am that, too. I am no more entitled than anyone else, yet I am as entitled as everyone else. This, for me, was the missing piece.
Now I know that my name was not a curse, as I had thought, but a blessing.
In my own way I followed Ruth’s path even as I ran from her name. Like her, I fled the limiting beliefs of the past. Like her, I embraced a connection with a Higher Power, and like her, I clung to my kinship with others who feel the same way.
Now I am proud to have her name as part of my story. Ruth’s actions do not represent self-abnegation or self-sacrifice. On the contrary, her story lights a path to the greatest self-actualization.
May we all be blessed to travel the path of our highest good with the courage of a Ruth or an Esther.
May we be blessed to redeem the losses of the past, and turn our hearts toward the future with faith, wisdom, and joy.
And may we be blessed to join with Ruth in being instrumental in welcoming heaven on earth, quickly and in our time.
Author: Reba Linker
Editor: Deb Jarrett