The Holiday of Shavuot
The custom on the holiday of Shavuot is to read Megillat Ruth, one of the 24 holy books that comprise the Tanach. Rav Natan of Breslov explains that Megillat Ruth is from the same aspect as Rebbe Nachman’s Tales of Former Times. The inner meaning of this statement is that Megillat Ruth appears to be a simple story, but really it contains many of the very deepest secrets and hints that have profound implications for our lives today.
At the beginning of the Megilla, we are told that there was a famine in Eretz Yisrael. Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, and their two sons Machlon and Kilyon go down to Moab, which wasn’t affected by the famine at this time. Machlon and Kilyon take Ruth and Orpah, who were sisters, an also the daughters of the King of Moab, as wives.
A short time after this, Elimelech died, and his two sons also passed away, and Naomi is left alone with her two daughters-in-law.
Now, let’s start to take a look at the deeper meanings hidden in this story.
In the Midrash, it’s written that Elimelech was one of the of the Gedolei haDor and a big tzaddik. He was the descendant of one of the sons of Yehuda, the son of Yaakov. The Midrash says that when Elimelech descended to Moab, there was a big kitrug, or accusation, against him in heaven, and they established a heavenly court to judge him.
How could a man of his stature leave the people of Israel at their time of need, at a time when there was a terrible famine in Israel?!
The heavenly judgment was rendered, that Elimelech and two sons should die. Only Naomi, in the merit of her being a huge tzaddeket, would remain alive. It’s written in the holy books that Elimelech had a very important reason for descending to Moab.
Elimelech’s family had a tradition that had been passed down from father to son for generations, from Yaakov Avinu.
Namely, that there would be a time of great famine in Eretz Yisrael, and at that time a woman would come from Moab to convert to become a Jew, and that from her would come the eternal king of the people of Israel, King David.
Elimelech was the firstborn son in his family, and he knew that the king of Israel was destined to descend from him. He saw that all the signs had been fulfilled: there was a famine in Eretz Yisrael, and now the righteous convert from Moab would be revealed – which is why Elimelech went down to the fields of Moab, in order to seek out this woman.
And in truth, this was Ruth, who married his son Machlon. But despite the fact that Elimelech intended to bring and reveal the King Moshiach in the world, a very harsh judgment was made against him, condemning him to death.
We learn an awesome thing from this: It’s forbidden to leave the people of Israel in their time of need, even if you want to go and bring the Moshiach. And we can also learn out from this that to help a Jew is even greater than bringing the Moshiach. This is one lesson we can learn. We’ll discover another lesson as we continue.
To the land of Israel at all cost
Naomi was in Moab with her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah. And she decided that the time had come to return to Israel. Naomi told Ruth and Orpah that it would be better for them to remain in Moab because if they returned with her to Israel, they’d be forced to live a life of extreme poverty.
Initially, both of the women still wanted to come with her, but after Naomi entreated them to stay, Orpah returned to Moab. In the meantime, Ruth decided that she would come to Israel regardless of the very low standard of living that she’d have.
They had no money, so Naomi sent Ruth out to gather ears of grain in the field. Ruth came to Boaz’s field in order to gather ears of grain, the way that the poor people used to do at that time, by walking after the harvesters as they scythed the fields.
Boaz was one of the Gedolei HaDor, and a very big tzaddik. He saw the unusual level of Ruth’s modesty and kedusha (holiness), and he also heard the huge amount of mesirut nefesh, or self-sacrifice it had required from Ruth to accompany her mother-in-law back to Israel after she converted.
She’d left a life of luxury to come and slum it in abject poverty, solely in order to be part of the Jewish people. Boaz told Ruth that she should only gather grain from his fields and that he would take on the responsibility for her making a living. After this, Boaz gave Ruth six ears of grain, to give to Naomi.
The commentators ask a question here: Boaz told Ruth that he was going to take care of her financial needs, and then gave her six ears of grain – what could she possibly do with just six ears of grain?!
Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura says the following: Boaz was a huge tzaddik, and his intention was to open up the gates of kedusha for Ruth, who was a righteous convert, and to bring her closer to Hashem. He wanted to bring her up a number of spiritual levels.
There are seven gates of kedusha, or holiness, juxtaposed to the seven lower sefirot, from chesed (kindness) to malchut (royalty, Kingship). The sheorim, the ears, that Ruth was given were a hint to this shearim, these gates. Boaz was hinting how he’d opened up the six gates, and that only one gate remained closed, the gate of gevurah, or judgments.
There’s another question here about Boaz: If he already opened up the other six gates, why didn’t he just open up this last one, too, the gate of gevurah?
The Rabbi of Bartenura tells us that Ruth didn’t need to get access to the shefa, the bounty from the gate of gevurah – because she already had it. Ruth was the daughter of the King of Moab, and the Moabites were a nation of giburim, mighty warriors. They hated the nation of Israel, and they’d already fought many wars against them.
The holy books teach us that in those days, each of the kings of the nation personified the main ‘trait’ of his country in an extremely powerful way. Each king personified the essence of his country’s national trait. Inasmuch as Ruth was the daughter of the king, she’d inherited all the strength of this trait of gevurah possessed by the Moabites.
Boaz possessed ruach hakodesh a spirit of prophecy, and saw all this and understood that he didn’t need to open up the gate of gevurah for Ruth. Not only did she have enough of this trait for herself, she was also going to renew the trait of gevurah (judgment/ courage/strength/heroism) within the people of Israel, too.
There’s a kabbalistic concept that revolves around the idea of ‘raising’ holy sparks up out of the klipot, or the realm of evil. The Rabbi of Bartenura explains that Ruth raised up the sparks of the trait of gevurah out of the realm of evil. Let’s see if we can understand what he really means.
The holy sparks in our times
There are Jews whose God-given mission is to grow up in places that aren’t very good, spiritually. Practically speaking, this applies to most of our generation today. There are people who have grown up in a criminal environment, there are others who are ‘professors’, each one is in their own spiritually-bad place.
The way of the world is that a person usually internalizes the character traits, worldview, and behavior that are present in the place where he grows up. In places where there is no Torah, and no yirat shemayim (fear of Heaven), the majority of people usually don’t have good middot, or character traits. They’ve internalized behaviors and lines of thinking that aren’t good.
But, in the midst of these negative character traits that a person has internalized, there are also good character traits to be found, and these are also internalized by the person. These good, holy character traits are the ‘sparks’ that sustain that bad place. Because in reality, nothing is completely bad, without any trace of good.
When a person makes teshuva and begins walking on the path of serving Hashem, he brings all his personal character traits with him. He draws closer to the tzaddik, learns Torah, spends time doing hitbodedut, listens to Torah classes – and then starts to understand that he has to work on and rectify his character traits.
Rectifying his character means that over time, slowly, slowly, he pushes more and more of his negative character traits away. And then he’s left with the good middot, i.e. the holy sparks that come from the place where he grew up before he drew closer to Hashem.
Essentially, each and every person that comes from a very faraway place, spiritually, and who then comes closer to God, is rectifying the whole world with Torah and holiness. A person can’t even begin to imagine how many enormous rectifications he’s performing in this manner, and it’s specifically coming about through all those good middot that he internalized at a time when he was very far from holiness.
This is the secret of Ruth, who was the daughter of the King of Moab.
She internalized all the gevurah (courage/bravery) of Moab, she inherited it all, and then when she converted, she brought it all into the nation of Israel. King David used the strength contained in all this gevurah to fight his wars.
And so, there was a prophecy that there would be a Moabite woman, a righteous convert, who would specifically have to be the ancestor of the King Moshiach. This was because the nation of Israel still didn’t contain the gevurah that King David needed in order to fight all of Israel’s enemies. It only came when Ruth the Moabitess arrived on the scene.
We see something similar with Yitro (Jethro), Moshe Rabbenu’s father-in-law. Yitro was the biggest idol worshipper in the whole world. When the nation of Israel left Egypt, Yitro ‘woke up’ and realized that there is actually a Creator of the world, and he decided to convert to become a Jew.
Yitro was a very big expert in avoda zara, and there are a great many klipot, (husks of evil) to be found in idol worship – as well as the nekuda tova, the holy, good sparks. In the practice of avoda zara, there is a very exacting, organized way of doing things. You can even see the same thing today, in science, because the scientists today are from the aspect of avoda zara.
Yitro worked on himself and rebuffed all the evil that he’d internalized from his avoda zara. All that remained then was his very ordered thinking and intelligence – the holy sparks. And he taught Moshe Rabbenu how to utilize this ordered way of thinking, and how to get organized, and advised him how to set up courts and judges for the nation of Israel.
Dafka, Yitro was the one who brought this concept of organized justice into the nation of Israel. Before he converted, Am Yisrael simply lacked this point, because this knowledge was still by Yitro.
So much of the nation of Israel’s rectification dafka depends on these righteous converts, on the baalei teshuvas, who bring back to the nation of Israel these holy sparks and raise them up out of the klipot.
Let’s return to the story of Elimelech, who descended to Moav at the time of the famine. Elimelech went down in order to raise up these holy sparks from amongst the klipot, and to bring the soul of Ruth, the essence of gevurah that her soul contained, back to the Jewish people.
And Elimelech was punished for this.
We should know that there is a very big lesson to learn from this. Since the creation of the world, there have been all these sparks that need to be raised up from the midst of the klipot. But there is a very big rule that we have to remember when it comes to the work of birur, or clarifying these sparks: It’s forbidden to deliberately ‘go down’ in order to raise up these holy sparks from the klipot.
Anyone who volunteers for this job will be punished for doing so, as happened to Elimelech, who received a heavenly death sentence for going down to Moab.
If this is the case, the question is asked: so who is going to bring all these sparks back up, out of the realm of evil? The answer is that Hashem will place people in those places where these sparks are to be found, without them having any intention of ‘raising’ these sparks up, spiritually.
Just as Ruth didn’t choose to be born to the King of Moab, in the same way, all those Jews who are growing up in places without a trace of Torah of mitzvah observance also didn’t choose their circumstances.
They didn’t have any choice in the matter! This was how Hashem decided things had to happen. Any only this way is it permitted to raise up the holy sparks from the midst of the klipot. Once all the sparks have been elevated from the realm of evil, our righteous Moshiach will come, may it be speedily in our days, Amen.