The Proof’s in the Off-Putting
And when she saw that she was struggling to walk with her, she ceased
speaking to her. [1:18]
Ruth’s endeavour to become a Jew comes to a climax when Na’ami, her mother-
in-law, tries to dissuade her from converting by acquainting her with the
challenges and demands of a Torah lifestyle. Ruth, however, is undaunted.
She replies to Na’ami’s dissuasion by making one of the most moving (and
famous) acceptances of Jewish life:
Do not ask me to leave you; to turn back from following you. For where
go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people is my
people; and your G-d is my G-d. Where you die, I will die, and there I
will be buried... [1:16-17]
At this point Na’ami, it seems, was finally convinced of Ruth’s sincerity;
she stopped putting her off. Strangely, though, when the author of
Megillas Ruth (it was written by Shmuel the Prophet) describes this
critical turning point, he writes:
“And when she [Na’ami] saw that she [Ruth] was expending great effort
[mis’a’metzes] to walk with her, she ceased speaking [i.e. dissuading]
with her (1:18).”
It would have seemed more appropriate to describe Ruth’s desire to cleave
to Na’ami and her nation, or perhaps her utter refusal to return to her
home and her previous way of life. Why does the Megillah stress the effort
Ruth was making to “walk” along with her mother-in-law?
A famous piece in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a) describes the first meeting
of Rabbi Yochanan and his illustrious brother-in-law Reish Lakish:
One day, Rabbi Yochanan was swimming in the Jordan. Reish Lakish [who was
then a highwayman] saw him, and jumped into the water. [Noting Reish
Lakish’s exceptional energy], R’ Yochanan said to him: “Your energy should
be used for [studying] Torah!! If you will repent from your ways and
return to the path of the Torah, I will give you my sister in marriage,
who is even more beautiful than I!” [R’ Yochanan was exceptionally
handsome.] Reish Lakish accepted. He then wanted to [jump back up to the
river-shore] to retrieve his clothing, but was unable to do so.
Eventually, R’ Yochanan taught him Scripture, and Mishna, and he developed
into a great sage.
Rashi explains the seemingly tangential description of Reish Lakish not
being able to jump back to the shore. This occurred, Rashi explains,
because, as Chazal teach (Sanhedrin 26b), the Torah weakens the [physical]
strength of its students. Although Reish Lakish had not even begun his
studies, his acceptance of the yoke of the Torah alone sapped a measure of
his previous strength, and he found himself unable to leap as he had done
Ruth, like Reish Lakish many generations later, also found herself
weakened by her acceptance of the yoke of Heaven. Her moving monologue,
and its profound implications, had left her physically and emotionally
drained. She actually found herself struggling to keep pace with her
mother-in-law, many years her senior. And it was this that finally
convinced Na’ami of Ruth's true determination. When Na’ami saw that she
was struggling to walk along with her—if Ruth no longer had the strength
to keep up, it was a sure sign that she had fully accepted the yoke of the
Torah. Any further attempts at dissuasion were a waste of words. So she
stopped speaking with her. [Gaon of Vilna, Chida (Simchas HaRegel), quoted
in Me’am Loez chapter 1 note 399]
Rabbi Yisrael Zev Gustman used to tell the story of a young bachur
(yeshiva student), Moshe, who arrived in Grodno at the famed Yeshiva of
Rabbi Shimon Shkop zt"l while the Rosh Yeshiva was in the middle of
delivering a complex Talmudic lecture (shiur). Moshe, although
inexperienced with the complexities of such a lecture, did not hesitate to
interject with questions that revealed his lack of background. After the
shiur, when asked by Moshe to accept him into the yeshiva, Rav Shkop
responded that while his desire to learn was obvious, it was impossible
for him to join the yeshiva at this time. He then suggested some
alternatives—yeshivos where the level of study was not so advanced.
But Moshe was undaunted. In his opinion, Grodno was the best yeshiva in
the area, and R’ Shkop one of the most brilliant minds of the generation.
It would take him some time to get up to par, but this was where he wanted
“Who cares if I’m accepted?” he said to himself. “The Rosh Yeshiva won’t
throw me out of the beis midrash (study hall). What don’t I have? Food and
lodging? I can sleep in the beis midrash. And as for food, one way or
another, I won’t starve!”
Moshe remained in Grodno. He would eat the leftovers of the “official”
students, and food that some pious women would bring him from time-to-
time. He slept on the floor. And he would beg the yeshiva students to
study Torah with him in their spare time.
After a while, Rav Shkop approached the boy and asked his forgiveness for
not having accepted him right away. “I didn’t realize how serious you
were,” he said. He said he would arrange for Moshe’s lodging and other
needs, but Moshe declined. He said that he was really quite comfortable
sleeping in the beis midrash, and that this allowed him to maximize his
learning time. All his years in Grodno, R’ Moshe slept there on the floor.
R’ Moshe Zaretsky was later acknowledged as a Torah scholar of rare
distinction. [ArtScroll, Shavuos, page 143-144]
While in a state of raw idealism, a person is often inclined to boldly
dismiss any challenges to their conviction—nothing seems too difficult!
Later, however, when push comes to shove, we sing a different tune. It is
far easier to preach and pontificate than it is to turn words into
actions. Talk, the saying goes, is cheap.
Perhaps this offers us another insight into the above discussion between
Na’ami and Ruth: What ultimately convinced Na’ami was Ruth’s willingness
to back up her idealistic words with actions. To speak of her convictions
and desire for a different way of life was a wonderful first step. But
there are many who speak persuasively, yet fail to follow through. It was
only after seeing Ruth struggle to keep up—her perseverance in the face of
physical weakness—that she was satisfied that her daughter-in-law was
truly worthy of joining the Jewish nation.
Wishing all our readers and their families a joyous and inspiring Yom
Tov (and Shabbos), and the traditional blessing to receive the Torah with
joy and depth (even when it’s hard!).
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org