It could almost be a romance novel: a woman, once rich and well-connected, loses everything, even her husband and sons. She returns home, accompanied by her widowed daughter-in-law, still feeling bitter about all she has lost, hoping that her late husband’s family will take them in. She finds herself living in poverty, supported only by what charity her daughter-in-law can collect; blind to her daughter-in-law’s efforts, she gives thanks only for the man on whose estate she manages to eke out a living. Again she tries to get rid of her daughter-in-law, sending her off for a midnight liaison with the landowner, yet the younger woman manages to create a sacred moment down on the threshing floor, and he blesses her with a future. He takes up her cause, frees her and her mother-in-law from poverty, and fathers a child with her who will found a dynasty.
Of course, as many of you may have already recognised, this is no romance novel: it’s essentially the Book of Ruth, which we traditionally read on Shavuot. Yet unlike the Ten Commandments, which we read earlier, it has nothing to do with prohibitions or allowances; it doesn’t touch on ideas of ritual purity or impurity. So what is a book like this doing in Tanakh?
The answer of the Rabbis (Ruth Rabbah 2:14) is that it teaches the extent of the good reward that will come to those who perform chasadim, acts of lovingkindness. While there are many acts of chesed in the Book of Ruth, one especially interesting category is the act of blessing, which may be useful for us if we want to earn a happy ending like the one that Naomi, Ruth and Boaz enjoy.
In any romance, the hero needs to make an impressive first appearance, and Boaz is no exception. When he first strides onto the scene, returning from Bethlehem, he greets the reapers in the fields, “Adonai imachem, God be with you!” and they reply, “Y’vareich’cha Adonai, May God bless you!” (Ruth 2:4). It’s a little thing, this remembering to speak with your employees and treat them as full human beings, but as we’ve seen lately – think Partygate – failure to do so can be seen to imply a failure of morals. Ruth’s hero doesn’t fail the test.
Boaz doesn’t only greet his reapers with blessing. When he wakes up in the middle of the night at the end of the harvest season, possibly still under the influence of the drink that made him merry before he laid down, he is startled to find Ruth lying at his feet. The Rabbis get worried at this point, because if he curses her in that first nervous moment of waking, the whole future of this story could be in jeopardy. Thankfully, though, after checking who she is, his first words to Ruth are, “B’ruchah at l’Adonai, Be blessed of God” (Ruth 3:10). No curse, but a blessing: disaster averted!
Call it karma, call it reaping what you sow, Boaz also receives blessing – albeit in absentia: when Naomi sees how much Ruth gleaned, she invokes blessing on the man “who took such generous notice of you” (2:19); then when she learns his identity, Naomi again says, “Blessed be he of God” (2:20). From these examples, Rabbinic tradition (Ruth Rabbah 6:2) learns that we should not hesitate to go to an elder to be blessed: for Ruth was 40 and Boaz 80, and both were childless – yet when he blessed her, and when Naomi blessed him, they were both remembered for good by God.
If it sounds implausible that mere words could have such impact, perhaps we should remember that in Jewish tradition, there’s no such thing as ‘mere words.’ Words are powerful: we heard today God’s Ten Utterances on Mount Sinai, and we opened this morning’s service with a verse from Isaiah that reports God saying, “So is the word that issues from My mouth: it does not come back to Me unfulfilled, but performs what I intend, achieves what I sent it to do” (Isaiah 55:11). Words are active agents, not just messengers. The Israelites are changed by their encounter with God’s Utterances, in the Revelation at Sinai, and Isaiah tells us even more directly that God’s words can change reality; they aren’t just empty or hot air.
It needn’t only be God’s words that can do this. There is something powerful about putting things into words, for perhaps until you hear it, you can’t even imagine it: actually articulating an idea creates the possibility of it becoming real. Sometimes we struggle to believe this in a positive sense, but I doubt there are many of us who haven’t experienced the negative version. If in anger someone wishes ill on us, it can be hard to shrug off, whether in person or on social media; think too of the nasty episodes early in the pandemic, when some Zoom-bombers were heard wishing people dead, and attendees left really feeling the impact of those words. So if we know the negative power of hearing a curse, perhaps we should take more seriously the positive power of a blessing.
To some of us it comes naturally; but many of us struggle. So how do we do it? You don’t have to invoke God’s name directly if that’s not your style. Instead it might help to think about what you might write in a birthday card, or what you might text a friend who’s about to have a medical procedure. Simple things like “have a lovely day” or “wishing you better soon” – you may not think it, but really these are blessings: words with the power to do good. Maybe your words don’t literally heal your friend, but they might give her heart enough to get through the treatment that will. Maybe your encouraging words will help a student to see the possibility that they will get through their exams after all.
There are times for negative speech, especially to speak out against injustice – and between war in Ukraine, American abortion issues and the UK cost of living, heaven knows there’s plenty to speak out about. Yet the majority of the time, we have the opportunity to speak words of blessing, if only we would take it.
The book of Ruth also reminds us that it is good to be receivers of blessings, as well as givers – and sometimes listening when someone blesses us, actually accepting it, can be the hardest part. When Boaz greets his workers with a blessing, they respond with a blessing of their own, and this might be the most comfortable way to receive a blessing: not to fling it back in someone’s face, but to add our own blessing in return. Yet this isn’t always appropriate: sometimes we just need to receive and allow someone else the opportunity to offer their blessing. Boaz blesses Ruth when she is vulnerable and powerless, and she simply responds with gratitude. We might even see the words of Torah as a blessing, given by God at Sinai, and our task is simply to receive them.
Sometimes our challenge is to make our words into blessings; sometimes our challenge is to hear those blessings and let them change our lives. Even when our lives are far from the stuff of romance novels, may the Book of Ruth inspire us to give and to receive, and may all our words of blessing change us for good. Adonai imachem, may God be with you; Y’vareich’ca Adonai, may God bless you.