There are many reasons that Megillat Rut is read on Shavuot. Rut’s embracing of the Torah is an example for all of us, especially appropriate for the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah. Another reason is the connection between the yearly harvest at Shavuot time and the part the harvest plays in Rut’s own life.
The Torah has set up a beautiful social system in which there are many opportunities for the needy to support themselves. In the Torah portion, Kedushim, which is found in the Book of Vayikra, Leviticus, we first learn of the commandment to leave a corner of the field and the droppings from the harvest for the poor. (See chapter 19, verse 9)
Naomi, Rut’s mother-in-law, sent her to glean in the field of Boaz, a leader and a relative. He was impressed by Rut’s modesty and industriousness and Naomi decided he could be their redeemer. Boaz did marry Rut and they had a child who was the grandfather of King David, the forebear of the Moshiach whose arrival we pray for daily. Tradition teaches us that there was an honored seat for Rut in King Shlomo’s court. Her life had taken so many twists and turns! Born a princess, married to the wealthy son of Elimelech, a widowed pauper returning to Land of Israel with her mother-in-law, the wife of Boaz the Judge, and mother of kings.
All these stages fascinate me but it is most intriguing for me to imagine her as a poor woman, kneeling in the field, and gathering food for Naomi and herself. Perhaps this is because once, many years ago, I did my own gleaning.
Of course, the circumstances were much different. First and foremost, it happened when I was living in America. The commandments to leave the corners and droppings in the field apply only in the Land of Israel. Also, I was not a widow, but rather a young newlywed. Nor was I destitute. However, my husband and I did live on a tight budget and sometimes when the end of the week came around we had to make do with whatever food was left in the pantry because there was no money to buy more.
A young man, planning to move to Israel, came into our lives that summer. He had gotten a job on a ranch in Dateland, Arizona in order to learn irrigation. Every Friday he came to us for Shabbat. It was towards the end of the summer that he invited us to visit the ranch and take all the grapes that were left on the vines. It was not that the owner was some evangelist Christian who tried to follow the laws of the Torah. Rather, it was not cost efficient to pay workers to gather the end of the harvest. They were free for the picking.
My husband and I made the trip with two of my husband’s single friends. We drove in a station wagon that belonged to the parents of one of the friends. The parents paid for the gas. I prepared the picnic lunch which we shared with all the boys and then we went out to the orchard.
Almost forty years have passed since then and I have no pictures from the day. Still, I do remember the slight feeling of unease I had as I picked the grapes. I had been reassured more than once, that it was perfectly fine, actually a favor to the rancher, that I pick his grapes. Did Ruth have that same feeling of apprehension that I had? Or was the gleaning of fields so much a part of the society in that time that it seemed perfectly normal?
Once the first box was filled I was no longer uncomfortable and my picking grew faster and more enthusiastic. We managed to pick enough grapes to fill enough boxes to completely fill the back of the station wagon. And they were all free! What fun we had passing out grapes to our neighbors in Phoenix.
Our friend from Dateland did move to Israel and worked on a moshav for years. He practiced, not only the laws of harvesting the fields, but all the agricultural laws of the Land of Israel. A dozen years later we followed him to Israel. We do not live on a moshav, but we have enough land around our house for my husband to have planted a nice vegetable garden. He has learned also to observe the agricultural laws.
Although there is not that much bounty he does leave the corners and droppings for the poor. Who knows? Perhaps a poor widow, a descendent from the family of David, will take some of the cucumbers or squash and in time she will remarry, have a son, and he will be the Moshiach.