By Ruth Balinsky Friedman
The Book of Ruth is one of the most beautiful stories in the Torah. Like many legendary tales, it begins with a situation of despair for the main characters, followed by stories of courage and personal struggle, and concludes with salvation delivered through the arrival of outside parties. However, what distinguishes the Book of Ruth from other stories is that there are no bad guys; the only antagonist is tragic circumstance. There are, however, two classes of characters in the Book of Ruth - the characters who simply do what is expected of them, and the characters who go above and beyond the law.
Ruth and Boaz are undoubtedly the heroes of our story. Ruth, a Moabite woman who loses her husband and father-in-law, is left without any means of economic support in a patriarchal society. Rather than abandon her mother-in-law Naomi, who also faces the same fate, Ruth forgoes the opportunity to return to the support of her father’s house and instead cleaves to Naomi. Mother and daughter-in-law, now a pair, have to resort to gleaning in the fields in the hopes of collecting enough barley to fill their empty stomachs. Without the support of a male relative to redeem their field, Ruth and Naomi face a lifetime of exhausting poverty.
As we know, Ruth and Naomi’s fate is transformed when Boaz, the owner of the field in which Ruth gleans and a distant relative of Naomi’s late husband, takes extra measures to protect Ruth. As a wealthy male property owner and a blood relative, Boaz is able to both redeem Elimelech’s field and therefore sustain the family name, and to support Ruth and Naomi for the rest of their lives. The final step in our story is when our two heroes, Ruth and Boaz, marry, and beget the Davidic line.
The Book of Ruth is understood to be the book of hesed, of acts of loving kindness. Ruth demonstrates a tremendous hesed by caring for a woman to whom she was not obligated. Fascinatingly, there is a character in the story who faces the identical situation but acts in the opposite manner. After Naomi’s husband and two sons die, she pleads with Ruth and Orpah, her daughters-in-law, to return to their families’ homes, where they will be supported. Orpah, understanding what her fate would be if she stayed with Naomi, weeps and kisses Naomi goodbye. Although Ruth stays by Naomi’s side, Orpah does not do anything wrong by leaving; she is merely obeying Naomi’s requests that Orpah care for herself. Orpah had the full right to make the choice that she made, but she remains a peripheral character, who immediately vanishes from the story.
Initially, nothing distinguishes Ruth from Orpah. They are faced with the exact same situation and the exact same choices. Orpah justifiably chooses a path of self preservation. Ruth disregards her own welfare and instead chooses to protect others. While in the rabbinic mind Orpah becomes a villain, the reality is that she made the only choice that she saw available to her. Orpah chose to return to her father’s house, for she likely did not see any other option - it was her only means of support. Ruth, in contrast, empowered herself to think beyond the limits that confined her and made the brave choice to stay with Naomi.
As women, we often assume that we are limited by the confines of what is expected of us. We cannot be brave, we cannot be bold, we cannot be genuinely independent. We should accept the first offer, we shouldn’t speak up when we want something more. We tend not to see ourselves as active, and capable of making a difference in the world. Because of this, we often make the choices of Orpah, and shy away from challenging our identities and roles. But, as we see in the Book of Ruth, these choices are the ones that cause us to blend into the background. If we want to be remembered, if we want to be changemakers, then we must push ourselves to be more like Ruth and to follow our gut and move beyond the bounds of societal expectations. In doing so we not only empower ourselves, but we become role models and, as a result, we become heroes for future generations.
Ruth Balinsky Friedman is a member of the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat.
 Babylonian Talmud Sotah 42b, Sanhedrin 95a