After the Exodus from Egypt, when the Jewish People were in the wilderness, on their way to the Land of Israel, they passed along the borders of the countries of Ammon and Moab. For the People of Israel, these were not another two foreign powers; there was a historical bond between these nations and Israel that went back several generations. The founding father of both Ammon and Moab, Lot, was a nephew of the founder of the Jewish nation, the Patriarch Abraham. What was more, had it not been for Abraham, the nations of Moab and Ammon would not have come into existence.
When Abraham first settled in the Land of Israel, Lot was living with him. At one point, a war broke out between two neighboring coalitions of monarchs, and Lot was taken captive by one side. When Abraham learned that his nephew had been captured, he gathered his men and set out to free him, at great personal risk to himself. Heaven helped, and Abraham was successful, even though the odds were against him. Lot was set free, and lived to found the nations of Ammon and Moab later in his life.
Now the descendants of Abraham were approaching the borders of the descendants of Lot. Common courtesy would require at least a minimal acknowledgment of the historic debt of gratitude which the descendants of Lot owed to the Jewish People. One would expect them to welcome their distant relatives and to express their gratitude by offering bread and water to the travelers who had come from afar.
But neither Ammon nor Moab responded with gratitude. Instead, they chose to ignore their debt to Abraham. Their conduct demonstrated a lack of basic human decency; consequently, G-d declared that they and their descendants would never be accepted as full members of the Jewish People. Although they might convert to Judaism, they would not be allowed to marry anyone born Jewish. Their only option for marriage would be to find a mate who was also a convert. This restriction would also apply to their offspring, forever.
A person who fails to thank a human benefactor will also ignore his debt to his Creator, and fail to serve Him. Gratefulness for the kindness of others is basic to human decency; without this sensitivity, an individual is deemed unsuitable as a member of the nation whose very raison d'etre is serving their Creator out of gratitude for all His blessings.
Nine generations had passed since Abraham rescued Lot and his family. Ammon and Moab had established themselves as independent nations, and prospered. In contrast, the children of Abraham had had more difficult experiences; they suffered enslavement and tortures at the hands of the Egyptians. Now they were free men, on the way back to their homeland. It was an ideal opportunity for Ammon and Moab to express their thanks, but they chose to ignore history.
The Jewish People returned to their homeland and established themselves there. Generations passed. Moab and Ammon went on with their lives, and the people of Israel with theirs. No member of Ammon or Moab expressed an interest in converting to Judaism, until a Moabite princess entered the scene.
Eglon, king of Moab, had a daughter named Ruth, who married the son of a Jewish aristocrat, Elimelech. When both her father-in-law and her husband died, Ruth insisted on remaining with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and becoming an integral part of the Jewish People by converting. She and Naomi left Moab, where Elimelech and Ruth had settled years previously, and returned to Bethlehem.
The head of the tribe of Judah, Boaz, was a widower living in Bethlehem at the time. As a relative of Ruth's late husband, he was concerned for the welfare of Ruth, who had converted to Judaism. Did the Biblical injunction against marrying a Moabite apply only to the males of Moab? Or was Ruth forbidden in marriage, because the Biblical injunction:
An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the L-rd; even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the assembly of the L-rd for ever; because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came forth out of Egypt.
Boaz took the question to the highest authorities, the Sanhedrin. The Sages deliberated the question and came to the conclusion that only the men of Moab and Ammon were forbidden to marry into the Jewish people. They explained that it was only the males who had been amiss, as the Torah states: "Because they did not meet you with bread and with water..."
It would not have been appropriate for the women to come forth with bread and water for the travelers, explained the Sages. Therefore, the women were right to remain at home. Therefore, the ban applies only to the men, and Ruth would be permitted to marry a Jew from birth.
With the announcement of the Sanhedrin's decision, Boaz immediately agreed to marry Ruth so that the house of his kinsman, Elimelech, might have an heir and his line continue. The wedding was celebrated, but unfortunately, the couple did not "live happily ever after." The next day, Boaz, who was no longer a young man, passed away to his eternal rest. Ruth was again widowed, but this time, her status was completely different. First of all, she was now a full-fledged Jewess. Secondly, she was about to become the mother of Oded, a child who grew up as a righteous Jew. The young Oded proved to be a source deep satisfaction and joy to both his mother, and to his grandmother, Naomi.
There were whisperings, however, among those who were not filled with joy over Oded's righteousness. True, the Sanhedrin had ruled that Ruth was allowed to marry Boaz, but some people had their doubts about their decision. Perhaps Boaz's sudden death, immediately after marrying Ruth, was an indication that the Sanhedrin had been mistaken? Could it be that Heaven was angry at Boaz's decision to wed a Moabite convert, and therefore Boaz died the very next day?
No one took an open stand one way or the other. There were those who continued to wonder, and some who continued to whisper. Naomi and Ruth continued to raise Oded as a fine Jew, and they lived to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Oded matured, married, and gave birth to a son named Yishai (Jesse), who followed the pattern established by his father, and grew up a model Jew and Torah scholar.
Now the whisperings were silenced. Everyone agreed: Such a pure soul as Yishai could not have been the children of a forbidden marriage.
He was appointed head of a yeshivah, and became a highly respected figure in Bethlehem. Yishai grew up to be recognized by one and all for his righteousness and scholarship. His sons followed in his footsteps.
Only one heart was not a peace: that of Yishai himself. Perhaps the Sanhedrin had been mistaken, after all, and his grandmother, Ruth, was indeed forbidden to marry a Jew from birth? If so, perhaps his own sons, as righteous as they were, still carried the blemish of a forbidden marriage and would not be allowed to marry women who were Jewish from birth?
His fear of Heaven caused Yishai to suffer continuous doubts. Eventually, Yishai decided to separate from his wife, so that he would not bring into the world additional sons who would be handicapped in their choice of mates.
The Sages teach, however, that a man should not be without a wife. Therefore, he sought a convert whom he would be allowed to marry, even if the status of Ruth's marriage was questionable. To this end, he selected one of the non-Jewish serving maids in his household, and set her free. According to Jewish law, this woman now had the status of a convert, and would be permitted to marry even a descendant of Moab or Ammon. Yishai wed her, in hopes of bringing unblemished children into the world.
However, just as the skies are far beyond man's grasp, so, too, are the ways of Heaven beyond our mental grasp. The ex-serving woman was loyal to her former mistress, and shared her pain at being forced to separate from her husband. At one point, she offered to exchange places with her mistress. In the dark, Yishai was unaware of the subterfuge.
Some time later, when it became apparent that his first wife was expecting another child, Yishai assumed she had sinned. What should he do? How should he relate to the child that was not his own?
Yishai had decided that he would isolate his other sons from this child who, to the best of his knowledge, was not his seed. When the child was born, he was named David. When he was old enough, David was sent to tend the flocks in the wilderness.
Some are broken by isolation; the strong, grow stronger through it. Some are embittered by the trials that beset them; others develop a sensitivity to the needs of others through their own suffering, and draw nearer to their Creator.
An observant, intelligent child, David was alone, but not lonely. He used the long hours of isolation to rise to sublime heights. There in the solitude of the desert, he observed the glory and might of Creation. In the endless sand and rock, the unfathomable heights of the cloudless blue skies, in the wisdom that provided for plant and animal life even in these harsh conditions, he saw the wisdom of the Creator again and again, and developed a profound love and respect for Him.
When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars which You established...
What is man, that You should remember him? The human being, that You should think of him?
Alone with the flocks, David could devote himself to Torah study without interruption. He poured his soul out to his Maker in psalms full of longing:
My soul thirsts for You,
My flesh longs for You in a parched, dry land, without water... Psalms 63:2
As the hart longs after brooks of water, so does my soul long for You, O L-rd.
The years went by. Yishai's seven righteous sons continued to grow up under their father's watchful eye. David continued to spend his time with the flocks.
The prophet of Israel in those days was Samuel. G-d spoke to him and told him to seek out Yishai and his sons:
Fill thy horn with oil, and go, I will send thee to Jesse the Bethlehemite; for I have provided Me a king among his sons.'
First Samuel 16:1
Samuel the Prophet traveled to Bethlehem. All the elders of the city came out to welcome him, and asked him how their city came to be honored with his presence. Samuel merely answered that he wished to have a meal with Yishai and his family, without revealing the reason for his request.
Once he met with Yishai himself, the prophet disclosed the mission on which G-d had sent him. One of the sons was to be anointed as the next king of Israel, but Samuel did not know which of them Heaven had chosen to rule. All seven sons passed before the prophet, but not one of them appeared to be the future monarch. Samuel was surprised, but G-d told him: "I have not chosen from amongst these!"
The prophet turned to his host and asked whether he had any additional sons. Yishai was stunned.
And he said: "the youngest yet remains. He is shepherding the flock."
To himself, he thought: "He is not my son; my wife bore him in sin. He is off by himself, an outcast. Let him stay with his flocks. It is better that way, both for us and for him. Let the prophet have a seat, and we shall start the meal..."
But Samuel would not be put off.
And Samuel said to Yishai: "Let him be sent for, and bring him, for we will not begin the meal until he comes here." (ibid. 11)
Yishai saw that he had no choice. The prophet was G-d's messenger, and must be obeyed. Silently, he thought to himself: "We will bring David here; there is no other way. Let the prophet see for himself, that it is not this son whom G-d has chosen for the throne."
David was summoned and came before the prophet, straight from the desert and his flocks.
"And he sent, and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and withal of beautiful eyes, and goodly to look upon." (ibid.12)
The contrast with his well-groomed brothers was drastic. His feet were covered with the dust of the wilderness. His brothers had donned their finest garments in honor of the prophet, but David was still wearing the rough garb of the shepherd.
But Heaven looks at the heart, not the outer garb. G-d commanded Samuel to anoint David:
And the L-rd said: 'Arise, anoint him; for this is he.'
Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren; and the spirit of the L-rd came mightily upon David from that day forward.
What a transformation! From utter rejection to the throne and crown!
What did King David feel at that moment? Was he blinded by the sudden light and greatness that had come to him in a single instant?
In the three short verses of Psalm 131, the new monarch summed up the feelings of his heart:
A Song of Ascents; of David. L-rd, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty; Neither do I exercise myself in things too great, or in things too wonderful for me.
Surely I have stilled and quieted my soul; Like a weaned suckling with his mother; my soul is with me like a weaned child.
O Israel, hope in the L-rd from this time forth and for ever.
The new king pours out his heart to his Maker, saying that he feels certain that all is for the good, just as a babe in his mother's arms knows that everything she does is ultimately for his benefit. He is certain that he will never be alone:
"Even though I walk in the valley of death, I shall not fear, for You are with me." Psalms 23:4