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Shavuot: The Scandalous Backstory of Ruth and Boaz
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So after Elimelech and his two sons Machlon and Kilyon die in the land of Mo'av, Ruth follows Naomi back to Bet Lechem with only the faintest of hopes of finding someone from her family to marry, to somehow keep her dead husband's legacy alive. Soon Ruth will meet Boaz, and the question hanging over the narrative is will he become her partner in this great act of Chesed that Ruth is striving to achieve? Ruth comes to Boaz's field and Boaz makes inquiries about her and hears from the farmhands some vaguely disparaging things about how there is this Moabite girl, she's here, she's been here for a long time, who knows when she'll finally go home. But Boaz to his credit doesn't just buy that story hook, line and sinker, he offers to protect her and she asks him why? She says; Madu'a matzati chen b'einecha lehakireini v'onochi nachri'ah - oh haven't we heard that from Yehuda and Tamar? The Haker challenge. The recognition challenge. Why have I found favor in your eyes that you recognize me such, I'm a stranger, I shouldn't be recognized. Nachri'ah by the way is just the letters Hakireini rearranged, the two are opposites. But I'm a stranger, I'm not someone who would be recognized. Why have I found favor in your eyes?
But Boaz does recognize her, like Yehuda had recognized the goodness in Tamar, goodness that wasn't so easily perceptible at the surface level. Here too, this girl who comes from Mo'av, who is disparaged by the farmhand, Boaz sees her differently, sees her for who she really is. He answers her; Hugad hugad li kol asher asit et chamateich - it was told to me everything you've done for your mother-in-law; Acharei mot isheich - after the death of your husband; Vata'azvi avich v'imeich b'eretz moladeteich - how you left behind your father, your mother and your birthplace and came to this nation that you didn't know yesterday and the day before. He extols her kindness and he suggests that G-d should bless her; Yeshalem Hashem pa'aleich - let G-d reward your deeds; Utehi maskurteich sheleimah - let Him give you a full and fitting reward; Me'im Hashem Elokei Yisrael - from G-d of Israel; Asher ba'at lachasot tachat kenafav - the G-d that you've come to shelter beneath His wings. Let Him indeed take care of you. Boaz, like Yehuda his ancestor, succeeds in recognizing that which is not so easy to recognize.
But the Book of Ruth does not end here. Recognition we have here, but Chesed, kindness, not so much. Months go by and that's all Boaz does, he never really acts. He knows that she's a woman awaiting Yibum for a relative of his, Machlon, but he does not act. Here too, we're sort of taken back to the story of Yehuda and Tamar. Yehuda withholds the possibility of Yibum, keeps Shelah from Tamar, and then after the whole deception scheme, he has this heroic, valiant act of recognition. Here we have the same two events, it's just they get reversed in order. First Boaz has this sort of valorous act of recognition, he recognizes the nobility of Ruth, but then he withholds the possibility of Yibum. What happened in the Tamar story? Tamar was very frustrated with this situation, she didn't let the cause die, but seeing that the man in the story wasn't going to help her out she resorted to deception, seduction, to do what she needed to do. That's basically what happened with the story of Lot and his daughters too. One wonders, if that's about to happen here.
Months pass, the harvest time is over, and Naomi approaches Ruth with a plan. Vatomer lah Naomi - Naomi says to her; Biti - my daughter; Haloh avakesh lach mano'ach asher yitav lach - let me find you a husband who will be good for you. Mano'ach literally means resting. Why would you call a husband a resting place? Whenever anyone dies without children there's that unfinished business. It was that way when Er died, and Tamar didn't rest, she stayed in mourning, in this limbo state, still connected to her husband, and it's that way with Ruth. Way back in Mo'av when Naomi had first been trying to convince Ruth to stay, not to bother with this fool's errand to keep her husband's legacy alive, it's hopeless. She had said; Yiten Hashem lachem u'metza'ena menucha - let G-d help you find rest, let G-d put this issue to rest for you. After all; Halahen tesaberna - shall you wait and grow old waiting for me to have children which will never come? Even if they did come; Ad asher yigdalu - should you wait until they grow up? By the way that was what Yehuda said to Tamar about Shelah, wait until he grows up. This time Naomi is not going to let it happen, don't wait until a child grows up, find rest.
But Ruth persevered and said, no, I'm coming back with you. She did not allow herself to find rest. Till finally Naomi says, we're going to put an end to this, Boaz is going to be it, and if he will not act, well there's ways that you can move this situation forward unilaterally. The story of Yehuda and Tamar ended in seduction, the story of Lot and his daughters ended in seduction, and that seems to be the direction which things are going here. V'rachatzt va'sacht v'samt simlotayich - wash yourself, anoint yourself with oil, put a dress on, and go to him at night, don't tell anyone you're there; Ad kaloto le'echol v'lishtot - until he finishes eating and drinking. After he's drinking lie down at his feet and he'll take it from there.
If you stop the story right here, it seems like it has the same ending as Yehuda and Tamar - not just Yehuda and Tamar, but Lot and his daughters too. Keep on reading. Vayochal Boaz va'yesht - and Boaz ate and he drank; Vayitav libo - and he was a little tipsy, just like Lot was when Mo'av was first conceived. Vayovo lishkav b'ketzei ha'areima - and he went to sleep at the side of the grain pile. Strange word for grain pile, it seems to be similar to the word Erom for nakedness, but it also has another connotation too if you think about Lot and his daughters. If you go back to the text in Genesis, they were in a cave - you know what the Hebrew word for a cave is? A Me'arah - it's exactly the same letters rearranged. Just in case you think that the connections to Lot and his daughters here are merely coincidental, read the next words. She comes quietly, but look at the Hebrew words for quietly; Vatavo balat - that's a strange word Lat - Lamed, Tet, what does that remind you of? Oh that would be Lot, wouldn't it?
So the stage is set for another seduction story, after all she is a daughter of Mo'av, what would you expect of her? He, Boaz is a child of Peretz, we all know how Peretz was born. But this in the Book of Ruth is the seduction story that never happens. Vayehi bachatzi halailah - and it happened at midnight; Vayecherad ha'ish - the man trembled; Vayilafet v'hinei isha shochevet margelotav - and here's this woman sleeping at his feet. He gets up with a start and he says; Mi at - who are you? Vatomer - and she answers - now if you stop right there that's the moment, the moment of truth. One possibility is she says, it doesn't really matter who I am, and she has her way with him. But that's not what she does. She answers and she answers truthfully, no deception. Onochi Rut amotecha - I am Ruth your maidservant. Then she does something that her own ancestors, the daughters of Lot didn't do, she gives the man facing her a choice. Upharasta kenafecha al amotecha ki go'el atah - I'm asking you to spread your cloak over me because you can redeem me. It's a euphemism for marriage, but oh what a euphemism she picks.
The word Kanaf can either mean coat or it can mean wings - spread your wings over me. You know we've heard that earlier in the story of Ruth when Boaz had recognized her greatness, had told her that she should be blessed by G-d; You should get a full reward from G-d, the G-d you've sought shelter beneath His wings. Well you know what Ruth is telling him now? You know if you think it's good enough for G-d that G-d should spread His wings over me, then maybe you should spread your wings over me too. It's not enough to hope for kindness from G-d, I'm demanding kindness from you. Machlon was my dead husband, he was your cousin, and you can help him in his time of need, and Boaz gets it. Vayomer, barucha at la'Hashem biti - blessed are you for G-d; Heitavt chasdeich ha'acharon min harishon - your last kindness, this kindness from Machlon, is greater than any other kindness you may have performed.
So in the end there is no seduction that night. In the morning everything is done legally and Boaz does marry Ruth and they have a child Oived, and three generations after Boaz and Ruth, King David is born.
Okay, let me say this by way of conclusion. When we look back at these three stories we've been talking about; Ruth, Lot and his daughters, Yehuda and Tamar, there have sort of been two basic themes that have been at play in these stories. Recognition on the one hand and kindness on the other hand. By recognition, I'm taking that word from the story of Yehuda and Tamar, the climax of that story, the turning point of the story, is Vayaker Yehuda, when Yehuda recognizes. But he doesn't just recognize his cloak, he also recognizes something else, he recognizes who he is, who she is. The disguise has gone, he sees Tamar as she really is, and he says; Tzadkah mimeni - you are more righteous than I. So when I talk about recognition here I'm really talking about a willingness to recognize you for who you are even though that maybe difficult, that it's an act of not violating someone, an act of respecting someone. That's one theme.
But there's a second theme; kindness is in this narrative too, in all of these narratives; Yibum is essentially an act of kindness. But when Lot and his daughters are trying to perpetuate the survival of the world on the one hand, the survival of Er, the continuation of his legacy on the other hand in the story of Yehuda and Tamar. Ruth, the same thing with Machlon. They're engaged in an act of kindness towards someone who can no longer fend for themselves. But now here's the thing, when we think about these ideas more broadly, these ideas of recognition on the one hand; non-violation, respect and the idea of kindness on the other hand, an interesting kind of relationship between those ideas, I think, begins to develop.
I'd like to suggest that it's kind of the relationship between a foundation and a structure in a building. You know if you tried building something without a foundation the building can collapse. However, if you just lay a foundation and you never get around to building anything, you don't have anything at all. Recognition, non-violation, respect, that's the foundation. If you think about the most foundational document that we have in our entire religion it's really The Ten Commandments. It's one of those things that we read on Shavuot. The Ten Commandments are about all these different ways that I need to respect and not violate someone, whether that someone is my creator, G-d or my parents, whether that someone is my peer. We actually did a whole course on The Ten Commandments in which I show in detail that really the whole document is about this kind of respect. I urge you to take a look at that course, you can find it right over here.
Kindness is something else. It's the structure, the building that you can build on top of respect. Once I respect you, once I do not violate you, once I recognize your specialness, your greatness, I'm then in a position to take one further step, to extend myself towards you, to respond to your deepest needs, and that is what we call kindness. So respect and kindness they work together, but either without the other is deeply flawed.
The story of Lot and his daughters it's a story of kindness, but kindness without boundaries, without respect, without recognition. Lot's daughters they get him drunk, he can't recognize anything, he doesn't even know who they are. They themselves are mistaken, they think they're doing Yibum to save the world, but it's not true, the world is surviving. Tragically they're just involved in an act of incest with their father - incest itself is a kind of love without boundaries. So that's kindness without boundaries, without respect, without recognition. Now, look at the story of Yehuda and Tamar. He acts very heroically with Tamar, he recognizes her, he will not violate her, he respects her. But kindness? He withholds the possibility of Yibum from her. So from Yehuda's perspective, this story is a story about success in the realm of recognition, but not really success in the realm of kindness.
All of this changes though in the second text we read on Shavuot, the Book of Ruth. Recognition and kindness finally link together. Boaz is acting against the backdrop of Yehuda. He, like Yehuda before him, is very good at recognition and he recognizes the spiritual greatness of Ruth, he blesses her. He won't violate her, he even takes care of her a little bit, but he doesn't really respond to her deepest needs, doesn't extend himself in Yibum towards her. He leaves her hanging. Ruth on the other side of things, she comes from this legacy of broken kindness, but ironically she transcends that legacy. She from Mo'av the anti-kindness people, she from daughters of Lot, the one who had engaged in kindness with no boundaries, Ruth finds herself with the same opportunity as Lot's daughters but she does not take it, she will not seduce Boaz. She offers him the chance to choose to become her partner, and when he does, she gives him the opportunity to bring Chesed, kindness, back into the house of Elimelech, where Chesed had withered.
Her triumph is of a commitment to kindness, but not at the expense of recognition. She will not trample on Boaz's ability to choose. She brings boundaries to that great drive of kindness. When Boaz accepts her invitation he redeems his past too. He goes beyond just a sterile act of recognition, to become an active partner in a great act of kindness.
So on Shavuot we read about these foundational things in our faith, the most foundational thing of all, The Ten Commandments; respect, recognition and non-violation. But we also read the Book of Ruth, we read about the commitment to kindness that must ride on top of respect. Ruth's triumph is the triumph of the merger of respect and kindness. This child of Lot, this child of broken kindness teaches us all what true kindness is really made of.
Thanks for watching this series on the Book of Ruth. As always, please leave your questions and comments below. Rabbi Fohrman loves reading and responding to them. To continue your learning, check out Aleph Beta Reacts, or the two other options for Shavuot; The Hidden Structure of The Ten Commandments, and Does the Book of Ruth Matter? Thanks and have a Chag Somayach.
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