- Me, Is a Very Small Word
- Rabbi Reuven Mann
- I. The Problem
- The Book of Ruth begins with tragedy. Famine engulfs the
land of Israel. To escape its clutches Elimelech with his wife
Naomi and their two sons journey to Moab. In and of itself this
does not seem like a crime deserving of death. However it brings
calamity. Elimelech dies. His sons then marry Moabite women who
had not converted. After ten years both sons die leaving Naomi
bereft of husband and children. We cannot help but wonder at
the severity of the catastrophe which befell this family. True
they had sinned but the Torah does not mandate the death penalty
for emigrating from Eretz Yisrael. Indeed halacha permits one
to leave in circumstances of dire need such as famine. Intermarriage,
on the other hand, is a great sin yet does not call for the death
penalty. We cannot help but wonder, what was the cause for the
harshness of the divine judgment?
- On one level, Judaism can be viewed as a personal guide to
living which governs one's relationship to the Creator. On this
level the damage of sin, even those pertaining to mistreatment
of others, is purely to the self. Whenever one sins his personal
relationship to G-d is affected. In this framework all sins are
not equally severe. Some are more harmful than others. Thus,
leaving Israel during a famine is not a crime. Marrying a gentile
is very serious but does not call for death at the "Hands
of Heaven". A superficial reading of the text creates the
impression that Machlon and Kilyon died because of their marriages.
However the Rabbis deny this. The verse says "and Machlon
and Kilyon also died...". The word also is intended to associate
their death to that of Elimelech. The text is teaching that they
too died for the sin of leaving the land. This exegesis is extremely
perplexing. It raises two questions. First of all, why does the
plain flow of the text associate their deaths with their forbidden
marriages? Second, and more troubling, is the notion that they
were treated more harshly for leaving the land than for taking
forbidden wives. The matter requires elucidation.
- II. The Individual and the Community
- Hillel said (Pirkey Avot 2:5) "Do not separate yourself
from the community." On the surface this seems like sound
practical advice as one derives many benefits from the community.
It certainly is in line with the idea of religion as an important
personal interest. However it is a concept with greater implications
and reveals an entirely new dimension of Jewish existence. The
Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva (Laws of Repentance) lists those sins
which due to their great evil, cause one to lose the world to
come. Included among them is a category of wrongdoing, which
at first glance, does not seem to warrant such a harsh penalty.
- Rambam-Yad HaChazaka-Laws of Repentance 3:6
"The following types of people have no share in the World
to Come, and are cut off, destroyed and excommunicated forever
on account of their very great sins and wickedness: An infidel;
a heretic; one who denies the Torah; one who renounces the resurrection;
one who renounces the coming of the redeemer; one who converts
from Judaism; one who causes many to sin; one who withdraws from
communal ways; one who sins publicly in a defiant way like Jehoiakim
did; an informer against Jews; one who instills fear on the congregation
but not in the Name of God; a murderer; one who relates lashon
harah; and one who pulls back his foreskin in order to cover
his brit milah."
- Rambam-Yad HaChazaka-Laws of Repentance 3:11
"Someone who withdraws from communal ways, even if he didn't
commit any sins, but separated from the Congregation of Israel
and does not join with them in the performance of mitzvot and
does not concern himself with their sufferings and does not join
them in their fast days but goes in his own path as though he
were of another nation and is not part of them (the Jewish people)
has no share in the world to come."
- This statement makes it clear that Judaism is not only concerned
with the personal fulfillment of the individual. It is not enough
to just conform to halacha and perform the mitzvoth. This is
very important but in itself does not render one a true Jew.
One cannot practice Judaism in isolation. The essence of being
a Jew is to be a full-fledged member of a unique metaphysical
community which has been established by G-d. The individual has
importance but only insofar as he is part of the Tzibur (community).
Klal Yisrael is the primary instrument through which G-d's purpose
in creation is fulfilled. The Torah provides great personal benefits
to any individuals who follow it. However, when it is embraced
and implemented on the societal level it achieves the ultimate
aim of making G-d's name known and sanctified in the world. Thus
when G-d offered His Torah to the Jews he told them that their
acceptance would have the effect of making them a "kingdom
of priests and a holy nation". The aim of the Torah is to
establish a society whose holiness derives from the fact that
its way of life is based on knowledge of G-d and imitation of
His Ways. The national mission of the Jewish people is spelled
out in the words of our Creator: "and I shall be sanctified
in the midst of the children of Israel." The preeminence
of the Tzibur finds eloquent expression in the Rambam's formulation
of a basic rule of prayer.
- Rambam-Yad HaChazaka-Laws of Prayer 8:1
"The Prayer of the Tzibur (community/congregation) is always
heard. And even if there were sinners amongst them the Holy One
Blessed is He does not despise the prayers of the multitude.
Therefore one must join himself to the Tzibur and should not
pray alone whenever he can pray with the Tzibur. And one should
always go to the Bait HaKnesset (shul/synagogue) in the morning
and the evening, because his prayer is only heard at all times
from the Bait HaKnesset. And one who has a Bait HaKnesset in
his town and does not pray there with the Tzibur is referred
to as a bad neighbor."
- One's service of G-d is bound up with love of His "anointed
one", the Jewish people. Whoever denies the sanctity of
Klal Yisrael denies Torah. Whoever maligns the Jewish people
or hates them is an enemy of the Almighty. The Torah records
what Moshe proclaimed when the Ark traveled. (Bamidbar 10:35)
"And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses
said, Rise up, Lord, and let your enemies be scattered; and let
them who hate you flee before you."
- One wonders who are the "haters of God"? Rashi,
the great the biblical commentator, explains, "These are
the haters of Israel". The words of the Rambam in Hilchot
Teshuva now make perfect sense. One who separates from the Tzibur
renounces the eternal relationship between God and the Jewish
people and is unworthy of the ultimate reward.
- III. The Sin of Elimelech
- We can now understand the deeper dimension of the sin of
Elimelech and his sons. A severe famine had descended upon the
land as a result of spiritual corruption. The nation was in dire
need of help. Elimelech was a man of great wealth and national
influence. He had a vital role to play in guiding the people
through its calamity. However he faced a crisis. He feared that
his personal fortune would be consumed in the great Tzedaka demand
that the famine had created. Rashi refers to him as Tzar Ayin,
stingy. This is a defect but in and of itself does not warrant
- However the seriousness of a defect is determined by the
context in which it is manifested. Cowardice is not so consequential
in times of peace. Elimelech abdicated his responsibility in
order to escape from his conflict. There are times when all personal
considerations must be put aside in order to save the Tzibur.
The Torah warns, "Do not stand by the blood of your brother."
A genuine leader is completely immersed in the objective welfare
of Klal Yisrael. In leaving the land at a time of such need Elimelech
placed personal concerns above the community. In my opinion,
the essence of his sin was that he was Poresh Min HaTzibur (abandoned
the community). His "sojourn" in Moab was supposed
to be temporary but "they remained there". Actions
have unintended consequences.
- The sons were attracted to Moabite women. The decision to
marry them without conversion indicated a further break with
the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Thus the Rabbis say
that they died not so much because of the halachik violation
of intermarriage but for the separation from the Tzibur which
- IV. Naomi and Ruth
- Naomi was a unique personality. She was the inspiration for
the conversion of her daughter-in-law Ruth. Ruth was attracted
to the spiritual ideals reflected in the personality of Naomi.
She discovered that they did not originate with her but could
be traced to the nation from what she sprang. She fell in love
with the Jewish people and wanted to be part of them. The words
of Ruth clearly express the chief motivation behind her desire
to convert. (Ruth 1:16-17) "And Ruth said, Do not entreat
me to leave you, or to keep from following you; for 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, will
I die, and there will I be buried; the L-rd do so to me, and
more also, if even death parts me from you."
- Ruth embraced the Tzibur because she recognized its profound
importance as the instrument of G-d's purpose. She expressed
her deep gratitude for the privilege of belonging to Klal Yisrael
by her determination to marry the much older Boaz who was her
"redeemer." She realized that she owed a debt of gratitude
to her departed husband who in spite of his sin had remained
true to the philosophical beliefs and ethical ideals of the Jewish
people. She wanted the world to know that he had not cut himself
off from the teachings of Judaism and that, to the contrary,
he was the original inspiration of her quest to be part of G-d's
community. The objective of her marriage to Boaz was clearly
expressed in his declaration: (Ruth 4:10-11) "And also Ruth
the Moabite, the wife of Machlon, have I bought to be my wife,
to restore the name of the dead to his inheritance, so that the
name of the dead shall not be cut off from among his brothers,
and from the gate of his place; you are witnesses this day. And
all the people that were in the gate, and the elders, said, We
are witnesses. The L-rd make the woman that has come into your
house like Rachel and like Leah, who both built the house of
Israel. May you prosper in Ephratah, and be famous in Beth-Lehem"
- V. Me, Is a Very Small Word
- This lesson has great relevance to contemporary American
Jews. We live in a culture whose major theme is personal gratification.
The highest aim is the unfettered expression of the individual.
This sometimes assumes more importance than the welfare of the
society. There is no sense of involvement in a community which
reflects values that are greater than the personal wants of individuals.
This petty individualism affects Jews in their attitude towards
Judaism. The center of gravity is the self. Today many Jews are
drawn to Judaism in search of "meaning". Few are concerned
with objective truth. For most the questions are: What does it
for me?, What makes me feel comfortable? What caters to my particular
feelings about the "spiritual?" One doesn't get the
feeling that people are engaged in a genuine and intellectually
honest search for an objective truth. "In those days there
was no king in Israel, each did that which was right in his own
- We have lost our sense of appreciation for the sacred Jewish
community. In this respect we are very shortsighted and lack
Hakarat HaTov (gratitude-Lit. recognition of the good). It is
only because of the eternal Tzibur that Judaism survived, developed
its spiritual treasures and transmitted them through every generation.
We should come to our senses and recognize that all genuine Torah
blessings come to us only because of the Tzibur. Ruth fell in
love with the Jewish nation because she discerned its true character
and beauty. Let us be inspired by her example to eliminate baseless
hatred from our hearts and seek out the many positive ways in
which we can contribute to the welfare of Klal Yisrael.