The Seemingly Scandalous Backstory of Boaz and Ruth
The Seemingly Scandalous Backstory of Boaz and Ruth
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Did Ruth Seduce Boaz?
How are we meant to understand the meaning of Ruth and Boaz's scandalous story?
The Book of Ruth is a charming tale, with its likeable protagonist and themes of devotion and kindness woven throughout — and who isn’t moved by that powerful scene, early in the book, when Ruth tells her mother-in-law: “Your people are my people, and your God is my God”?
But then… you get to the part with the love story between Ruth and Boaz. Ruth and Boaz's story starts off nicely, slowly… but did you catch that whole weird scene in Chapter 3? During the climax of the story, per Naomi’s instruction, Ruth anoints herself in oils, gets all dressed up, and goes down to Boaz in the middle of the night after he's been drinking. What are we supposed to learn from that? What did your kids think about that part? When you read the story of Ruth and Boaz in shul on Shavuot, did all of those ‘seduction’ themes enhance the spirituality of your Shavuot experience?
This love story between Ruth and Boaz can seem peculiar at best and uncomfortable at worst. So why do we read it on Shavuot, and why is it in God’s Holy Bible? Did Ruth seduce Boaz? What's the Bible lesson behind that part of Ruth and Boaz's story?
So it turns out that there’s a good reason that we read this story on Shavuot, there’s a good reason that Ruth and Boaz and their whole affair are included in the Bible — and no, we wouldn’t have been better off if the censors had clipped out Chapter 3 altogether (God forbid!). If they had, we’d have been much worse off, because we’d be completely missing one of the central lessons of the Book of Ruth - a lesson that can only be glimpsed when you read this story alongside the other stories of seduction in Ruth’s family. “Which stories of seduction?” you are wondering? You only knew about Chapter 3?
In this course, originally created for Shavuot, Rabbi Fohrman revisits the incidences of scandal that have plagued Ruth’s family for generations — and what he finds are, in fact, deep lessons about human relationships, about kindness, and about the ways that we can choose to manipulate one another or truly help one another. It’s a story that redeems the love shared between Ruth and Boaz.
Hi folks it is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Aleph Beta. We are going to be looking at the Book of Ruth in this course. The Book of Ruth is traditionally read on Shavuot, our upcoming Holiday, and I think one of the things we might want to start with is why is this Book read?
Why Do We Read the Story of Ruth and Boaz?Could be as something as trivial as the wheat harvest. I mean it's a book about the wheat harvest, Shavuot comes around the time of the wheat harvest, so that could be it, that seems like a pretty tangential reason to read the Book. But it could be if we want to get maybe a little bit more spiritual about it, we might say something like we have a book about a really nice lady named Ruth who is actually from Mo'av, she converts and maybe it's about embracing G-d. Maybe that's what we all do on Shavuot, we embrace G-d, we accepted the Torah and that's certainly one possibility.
But there are some problems with that approach as nice as it may sound. Problem number 1, the great speech of Ruth where she clings to Naomi, she says, where you sleep I sleep and your people is my people and your G-d is my G-d, you cannot keep me from you, that speech happens towards the end of Chapter 1. The Book should have sort of ended there; I mean everything else is just sort of anti-climactic after that. I mean what happens?
The "Love" Story of Ruth and Boaz in the BibleNaomi heads back with her daughter-in-law Ruth, they're in Bet Lechem, sort of poor and Ruth is just taking some of the leftover sheaves in the field and there's this fellow there, Boaz, gives her a blessing, says, G-d should be nice to you too. Naomi tries to stir up some romance between Boaz and Ruth and then there's this strange thing that happens in the middle of the night, it seems kind of risqué actually, and Boaz marries Ruth, and they have children, they live happily ever after.
It actually takes a while to get there because in the middle Boaz convenes these people and there's this other guy Ploni Almoni, he sort of kind of wants to marry her, and he sort of says he'd rather not and then Boaz comes to the fore. I mean all of that seems completely irrelevant really. If the point of the Book is about what Ruth does in Chapter 1, then by golly it should be a much shorter book. It just should have ended in Chapter 1. I mean, why do we keep on hearing about the extended story of Ruth? Why does this Book not end in Chapter 1?
It must be that this Book is not really just about Ruth the convert, it's about what Ruth the convert does, what she's committed to, and that brings us actually to last year's course. I recommend you take a look at what we did on Shavuot last year, but if you have seen it you know that an important part of the Ruth story is the Yibum elements of this Book.
Why Did Boaz Marry Ruth the Moabite?The law of Yibum as given in Deuteronomy, in Sefer Devarim, is the following. If a man and woman are married and the man dies and the couple are childless, there's a Mitzvah on the brother of the deceased to marry the widow in an act we call Yibum. The idea here is that children that they have will perpetuate the name and the legacy of the deceased brother. Loh yimocheh shemo mi'Yisrael – let his name not be blotted out from among Israel. It's a great gift that the brother is giving, because the child in some sort of fundamental way isn't really his; biologically it's his, spiritually it belongs to his dead brother, and so Yibum is a great act of Chesed, it's a great act of kindness. It's almost like surrogate parenthood in a way.
And, once we see that Yibum is here in Ruth, so that would sort of make sense as to why the Book is as long as it is, it's not just that Ruth is virtuous because she was a convert to the People of Israel, but of course it's what she does afterwards. Here she is committed to perpetuate the legacy for her dead husband Machlon and by extension Machlon's father Elimelech. Because remember Elimelech comes to the land and he dies, and Machlon and Kilyon, these two children die, and Ruth sees it as her mission to keep the legacy of her dead husband alive. It's a great act of Chesed.
So at this point we're thinking, wow that's really something, she's very committed to G-d, she's very committed to the legacy of her dead husband, she seems like a wonderful role model. But then the question is, you know, you get to the end of the Book you're not so sure if you want Ruth to be your role model.
Why Did Ruth Uncover and Lay At Boaz's Feet?I mean, if we think about our great sort of feminine values, so what do we always talk about? Commitment to Torah, commitment to G-d, kindness. I mean, you can just give Ruth a five stars out of five stars in all of these things. But then there's this seduction story at the end of this.
Ruth is told to go lie down next to this man in the middle of the night and to uncover his legs – it's very suggestive, and this is like planned out. Naomi says, I want you to get dressed nicely, and I want you to anoint yourself with oil and to wash yourself and then to go down in the middle of the night, don't tell anyone you're there, after he's been drinking. It seems to completely ruin our vision of our really virtuous Ruth, or does it? Or how are we supposed to understand this? What is this story even doing here?
Okay so we've got these two overarching questions over here:
- Why is it that we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, what does it really have to do with the holiday?
- And, how do we understand this whole seduction story? Doesn't it really ruin everything?
What's the Lesson Behind Ruth and Boaz's Story?So going back to that second question, what I'd like to suggest to you is it doesn't ruin everything, it really is the story. To understand why it's the story we have to understand where this story is coming from, because this sort of seductive entrance into a Yibum-like thing is not the first time it's happened in Tanach. There's two other stories that Ruth kind of reminds of.
In Genesis, there are two great stories that occupy almost all of the Book of Genesis, one is the Abraham story, the other is the Joseph saga, but both of these sagas get interrupted for a chapter, and in that interruption we meet some sort of strange Yibum story that actually seems to involve seduction, seems to sort of have this fingerprint of the Ruth-like story.
The story I'm thinking about that interrupts the Abraham story is the story of Lot and his daughters. The story I'm thinking of that interrupts the Joseph saga is the story of Yehuda and Tamar. When I say interrupt I mean really interrupt. I mean Abraham and Sarah they're the main characters in the Abraham saga, however, right in the middle of the Abraham and Sarah story the spotlight falls off of Abraham and Sarah and focuses on Lot.
Lot is in Sodom and Sodom is destroyed and Lot manages to escape and at the very end of that story there's this seduction narrative. The daughters of Lot seem to feel that the world has been destroyed and it is up to them to perpetuate not just the legacy of a dead husband but the legacy of mankind itself, and the only possibility, the only man left alive in their view is in fact their father Lot. So they set about giving him drink and seducing him unknowingly.
Now whether or not Lot really doesn't know is a question that the Rabbis attacked. It turns out that the words in the Torah that suggest that Lot was not aware of what was going on have dots above them in the Torah scroll, leading the Sages to suggest that he knew and he didn't know. He sort of allowed himself not to know. So Lot is sort of aware that his daughters don't really know what's going on – Lot at least knows that the entire world hasn't been destroyed so his viewpoint on what's happening here is not as virtuous as his daughters, but his daughters are really just trying to do the right thing. It's a mistaken act of Yibum, but it's the same sort of seductive thing, a Yibum that comes about through seductive means.
Then if you go to the story of Joseph; Joseph is the main character all the way through with the exception of Chapter 38. Right after the sale of Joseph we have this strange digression into a relative of Joseph – just like Abraham had a relative by the name of Lot, Joseph has a relative, a brother by the name of Yehuda.
All of a sudden the focus is on him and his children. Er the oldest one takes a wife, a woman by the name of Tamar, but shortly afterwards Er dies. That leads to a Yibum-like situation; indeed Yehuda himself goes to Onan, the next child in line and says, you should really perform Yibum with Tamar. Again Yibum has not been given as a law until the Torah has been given at Sinai, and this is pre-Sinai, but as the Ramban explains, the idea of Yibum seems to have pre-existed Sinai. Sinai kind of took the idea and then molded it into law, but the idea was there.
Yehuda says perform Yibum, try to perpetuate the legacy of your dead brother and Onan then consorts with Tamar, but does so in a way so as not to impregnate her. He seems to be aware that the child is not going to be his. As the text says; Vayeida Onan ki loh lo yihiyeh hazarah – Onan knew that the child wouldn't be his, in some sort of deep, spiritual way and therefore he made sure she didn't become pregnant and G-d did not like that, so Onan dies too.
So now we have two children down, leading Tamar to wait around for the very last child, hoping to do Yibum, to keep the legacy of her dead husband alive with Shelah. However, Yehuda is not so excited about letting Tamar marry Shelah, but instead of telling her that, he just sort of has her wait. He says; Ad [asher] yigdal – until Shelah grows up and then you can have him. But then finally Shelah does grow up and Tamar sees that she is not going to marry him either.
Meanwhile, Tamar has been in limbo, she's still wearing clothes of mourning because she can't really close the book on her dead husband, there's always the possibility of marrying someone who is going to keep that marriage alive and having a child to perpetuate his name. So then she takes matters into her own hands and brings seduction into it.
She dresses up like a harlot, taking off her clothes of mourning, dressing up as someone that she can't be recognized and stands at the crossroads and waits around for Yehuda to come along, and then gets involved in this seduction scheme. It's a scheme that the Torah details almost the same way it details what's going on with Ruth. We hear about the bargain between her and him and it's very strange. She wants payment for her services and asks what he can give her? He says, well I would give you a goat but I don't have the goat. She says, well I guess I'll take your staff and your signet ring and your cloak, I'll just have that, keep them as safekeeping until you give me the goat. I mean, just this really strange story.
But whatever the larger meaning of that story is, these two digressions in Genesis somehow seem to almost foreshadow some of what it is we're seeing here in Ruth.
Understanding What the Story of Ruth and Boaz MeansIt's like this isn't the first time we've had a Yibum brought about through seductive means. I want to suggest to you that there is no understanding Ruth without understanding those two stories, they are the foundational building blocks for the Book of Ruth in marvelous and wondrous ways. What I'd like to do in our next videos is to take you back into those stories to try to understand what those stories were about and once we really understand what those stories were about we will come back to the Book of Ruth and it will be an entirely different Book.
We will understand the seeming seduction narrative that takes place in Chapter 3. We'll understand the overall message of the Book of Ruth in an entirely new way and we may even understand what this Book really has to do with Shavuot after all.
Kindness and Broken KindnessOkay so of these two stories we are going to start with the story of Lot and his daughters, let's jump into that. The story of Lot and his daughters is really the tail end of the story of the destruction of Sodom. G-d sees that Sodom is very evil and He decides to destroy it. But here's the interesting thing, question number 1, we hear chapters earlier that Sodom is very, very bad but G-d doesn't destroy it then, what precipitates the destruction of Sodom at the particular time it is in fact destroyed? Question number 2, right before the destruction of Sodom, angels are sent to the city, why are the angels sent there? One possibility is they're sent to destroy Sodom, but that seems kind of strange because actually the angels aren't in Sodom when it's destroyed, they're outside of Sodom, so they apparently have sort of remote control detonation abilities, so they don't really need to be in Sodom to destroy it. So what's the other possibility of why they might be sent to Sodom? Well we know what happens in Sodom, they get into Sodom and they end up saving Lot. But the problem is if - I don't know, if I was an angel, and I was sent to save Lot, first thing I'd do is I'd go to Lot's door, I'd flash my Angel FBI pass and I'd take off my sunglasses and I'd say, sir, come right this way, we don't have a moment to lose. I'd whisk you onto my waiting camels and off we would go. But that's not actually what happens, they hang around in Sodom for a while, Lot finds them, invites them in, they go and they have this big feast in Lot's house, they seem to have all the time in the world. Then all of a sudden there's this mob that convenes by the door demanding that the guests be thrown out to the mob and it's at that moment that finally the guests say, quick, you don't have a moment to lose, let's get out of here. What's that about? What really is their mission in Sodom? Neither of the obvious theories seem to fit so easily.
So allow me to suggest a theory here for your consideration. The larger story may just be about kindness - genuine kindness and imitated kindness, a kind of broken kindness. Let me explain what I mean. When is it that G-d decides to destroy Sodom? It happens immediately after the most extended kindness narrative in the Torah. The story of Abraham immediately after his own circumcision at an advanced age, when he would have been in great pain, and he goes and he sees these angels and he invites them in and he asks them to wash their feet and he provides this big feast for them. He really puts himself out for them. At the end of that story Abraham is rewarded with news that there will be a miraculous child for him and Sarah despite his advanced years. As he bids the angels farewell; Vayashkifu al pnei Sodom - they gaze out towards Sodom, and it's right then that G-d sort of comes out of the clouds and says, you know, I think I'm going to have to destroy Sodom. Why all of a sudden?
And why for that matter consult Abraham about the destruction? Abraham goes on this long bargaining session with G-d. You know, if there's 50 people would You spare them? Take them down to 45, then 40, all the way down to 10. It's like G-d says, all right just let Me know when you're done, whatever you say, you decide. Where does Abraham get this power to bargain with G-d and to sort of be influential as to whether or not Sodom is going to survive or not?
So here's a theory for you, perhaps Abraham becomes the unwitting prosecutor of Sodom. You see, Sodom was committed to an anti-Chesed, anti-kindness perspective. It was a matter of public policy. Sodom is described as one of the most fertile areas in an otherwise barren wasteland of a desert, how did they keep it all to themselves? The Medrash quoted by Ramban says, by instituting a policy of making sure that any guest that comes was raped and robbed, as the Medrash says. You see it in the demographic makeup of the mob that makes its way to Lot's door when Lot takes in guests, the mob is old people and young people, from all economic strata of society, they all come for the Town Hall protest on Lot's lawn. You have violated the social contract of the city by inviting guests in. All upstanding citizens of Sodom are rightfully enraged and are just exercising their civil duty to protest this terrible crime. So if Sodom is committed to anti-kindness, then when Abraham rises to the greatest heights of Chesed that you can imagine despite his pain, opening his doors to take care of guests, that indicts Sodom. What room is there left in the world for a place like Sodom?
That I think helps to explain the otherwise strange bargaining sessions. You know if Abraham is the unwitting prosecutor here, he gets to decide. G-d says, I better consult Abraham and whatever Abraham says goes. You say 20, fine it will be 20. Finally Abraham stops at 10, and that's the number.
So why then do the angels enter Sodom? What are they doing there? It seems to have something to do with Lot. The answer may well be they're there to see if Lot is worthy of being saved. You see Lot was Abraham's nephew, he grew up in the house of Abraham, but now he's assimilated into the people of Sodom. So is he one of them or not? When Lot sees the angels in Sodom his kindness is tested. So he comes and he invites them into this great feast, similar to the way that Abraham entertained the angels with a feast. There was a moment in which Lot was called upon to turn his back on the values of the surrounding society and to tell the mob; Al nah achai tarei'u - don't do this evil thing.
But there was only one tragic part of this incident, in the middle of this great triumph of Lot is his greatest moment of downfall too. He tells the mob, don't take my guests but here are my daughters. Now, by all indications, the mob weren't interested in the daughters, they continued to press forward to try and get at the guests, but what was Lot thinking? What was he doing? What a callous, awful act that mars whatever kindness he gives to his guests. What's the consequences of that act? The Sages say something very strange in the Medrash. They say that when Lot threw his daughters out to the mob, G-d swore and said, you're saving them for yourself, aren't you? And so it was. Because at the end of the story Lot actually commits incest with these daughters. They think it's an act of Yibum for the world, but Lot knows better and allows himself - without knowing but kind of knowing - to be seduced.
Now it's a strange thing the Sages say because if he was really saving them for himself then why would he throw them out to the mob, he would save them for himself? What does that even mean? But perhaps the Sages are telling us something very deep here about the nature of kindness. The truly kind person is kind to their wife, to their children, and then more extended relatives and to their neighbors and townsfolk and their nation, and ultimately the world. Their natural concentric circles in kindness radiates outward. Lot provided a feast for the angels as did Abraham, but there was something broken in his kindness because at the same moment that he is providing this feast for the angels, that he is defending them, that he is placing his back to the door, he takes his own daughters and casts them out to the mob. Where was the kindness for them? For the closest members of his family there was no kindness, only for the outside circles, but not for the inside circles. Lot's kindness was imitated kindness, he was imitating Abraham, it didn't radiate from the inside, it was a broken kind of kindness.
So what was the legacy of that broken kindness? The legacy was Mo'av, the child of Lot and his daughters. You see it doesn't seem coincidental that those daughters at the very end of the story they end up in this strange, incestuous relationship with their father; it was a second violation of those daughters, not only did he throw them out to the mob he himself violated them. And what is incest really other than a twisted kind of love; it takes the act of love and turns it into something selfish. That leads us straight to Mo'av. Mo'av means Mei'av - from father, it's like naming the child after the act of incest itself. "Come here, little Incest". What an awful thing to name a child. But that's the tragedy of incest, whatever relationship you have with your own parents, even if it's a twisted, terrible one, it's your parents, and it seems normal because this is what your parents are doing.
So what's the legacy of this twisted relationship? What's the legacy of this child of broken kindness? Mo'av actually historically takes kindness and turns it on its head. Why is it that the nation of Israel is bidden later on in its history not to marry into Mo'av? In the words of Devarim; Al devar asher loh kidmu etchem balechem ubamayim - it's because they didn't come out and offer bread and water to you as you left Egypt. They failed to perform Chesed, they wouldn't do it, almost on principle. That's the rationale given by the Book of Deuteronomy. Why might the children of Mo'av not have been so big on kindness? If you were a daughter of Lot and had memories of being thrown out of the door in the middle of the night while your father kept a feast going to provide Chesed to his guests, how interested would you be in Chesed when you grew up? Would you have 13 guests around your Shabbat table? No. Your memories of Chesed would have been bitter; there was Chesed for everyone but you. You would have turned against that; kindness has an awful smell to it, it's revolting to you.
And isn't it interesting that the other time we meet Mo'av is in the aftermath of the Bilam story when of all things the daughters of Mo'av mingled with the Children of Israel promiscuously. They seduced them to bring Israel to worship foreign gods. It's like this crazy, topsy-turvy inversion of things. Because when you really think of it there are two kinds of love, two kinds of kindness in the world. There's public love and there's private love. Public love is the kind of love that you show everyone. Kindness, Chesed, you invite guests into your house, that's the kind of love which is non-exclusive, which is open to the world. But there is a private kind of love, an intimate kind of love, exclusive between a man and a woman. Now keep these two kinds of love in mind and look at Mo'av. Mo'av took public love and made it private, and took private love and made it public. It's the twisted legacy of broken kindness. The legacy of being thrown out on the street by your own father, but having your father also be the sort of, kind of, accomplice in a selfish kind of intimacy, which from his perspective was nothing but incestuous.
We've talked a lot now about the story of Lot and his daughters, it seems relevant to the Book of Ruth because it's the first example of a seduction story that seems to involve a Yibum-like event. But that's not the only reason it's connected to the Ruth story; Ruth is one of the daughters of the nation of Mo'av. What was the story of Lot and his daughters really all about? It was about the birth of this nation, Ruth's nation, the nation of Mo'av. Ruth was not acting in a vacuum, there was a context for how she was acting, and the context was Mo'av. Lot and his daughters, this was the legacy of her ancestors. Mo'av was the nation of broken kindness. So before this series is done we will come back to look at the Book of Ruth in light of the story of Lot and his daughters, to see how the Lot story provides context, influences the development of the Ruth story.
But before we do we need to come back and look at that other digression we were speaking about in Genesis, the other seduction story involving a Yibum-like act, the story of Yehuda and Tamar.
Recognition and RespectSo if the story of Lot and his daughters is a story of broken kindness, what is the story of Yehuda and Tamar about? So let's take a look at this story and see what we find. I mentioned earlier that the story of Yehuda and Tamar in Chapter 38 in the Book of Genesis is a kind of digression from the main storyline at that point. All the other surrounding chapters have to do with the sale of Joseph and its aftermath. Thirteen full chapters about Joseph with one exception, a story of Yehuda and Tamar that seems to have nothing to do with Joseph. We focus on Yehuda and once that's done we just go back to the Joseph story as if nothing happened. Rashi actually asks the question straight out in the very first verse of the Yehuda and Tamar story. The story opens with words; Vayeired Yehuda mei'eis echov - and Yehuda went down from amongst his brothers. Rashi asks; Lamah nismecha parsha zu l'kan - what is this whole story doing here; V'hifsik b'parshato shel Yosef - why does it take us away from the story of Joseph that we were involved in?
Lelamed shehoriduhu echov migedulato keshera'u betzarat avihem - Rashi's answer is that the word Vayeired that begins this story can be understood in two senses. It can mean that Yehuda physically went down from amongst his brothers, but it could also be understood in a political sense, that the brothers caused Judah to descend from his among his other brothers; Keshera'u betzarat avihem - when they saw the pain that the sale of Joseph had caused him. You see, Yehuda had engineered the sale of Joseph and the very last words before the story of Yehuda and Tamar were words that expressed father's pain, when father said; Ki eired el beni avel she'olah - I will go down to my grave mourning Joseph. Rashi says the two Vayeireds are connected. The reason why the brothers caused Judah to descend was because father said, I'm going to descend to my grave mourning Joseph, I'll never get over his loss. They realized the folly of the sale of Joseph and held Judah accountable for it.
But you see here's the problem, at face value Rashi just seems to be explaining one sentence, why the story of Yehuda and Tamar begins with the word Vayeired, what about the rest of the story? Why the whole long story, Judah he marries somebody, he has three children, this one dies, that one dies, Tamar marries this, why do I need to hear about all of that? I believe the answer is that Rashi is telling us much more than the connection of one verse to one verse, he's talking about the whole story. And to see that you need to dig just a little bit more; the connections between the story of Joseph and his brothers and the story of Yehuda and Tamar are vast and are deep. Because of time constraints I cannot get into all of them here now, however, right here on Aleph Beta we have another course devoted just to the story of Yehuda and Tamar; I recommend you look at that for the fuller picture. But here's a quick summary of some of the important points.
The Sages alluded to the connections between the story of the sale of Joseph and the story of Yehuda and Tamar when they focus on a couple key words at the end of each story. Yehuda had said to his father; Haker nah - do you recognize this? The brothers had sent a bloody coat to Jacob after having thrown Joseph in the pit and had asked father to recognize it and father indeed affirmatively does recognize it and comes to the conclusion that Joseph must be dead. He says, I will never get over the loss of Joseph, I will go down to my grave mourning this son. Yehuda leading the brothers actually [ferment 3:39] this kind of loss upon Jacob and he does it with; Haker nah - do you recognize this? Those words themselves come back to haunt Judah when he hears those words from Tamar.
After Tamar becomes pregnant, after dressing up as a harlot and seducing Judah, it turns out that something both ironic and terrible happens. Yehuda who seems to have been the judge at the time is told that Tamar is pregnant, apparently illicitly, she had been awaiting Yibum and then Shelah, Judah's child hadn't married her, it seems that this was an illicit union. So this case is brought before Yehuda, she's condemned as adulterous and is sentenced, of all things, to capital punishment, when in fact, unbeknownst to Yehuda he's actually the father of her child. The commentators explain that at the time a woman awaiting Yibum is still seen as married in some kind of provisional way to her dead husband, such that intimacy with any other man other than for the purpose of Yibum would actually be considered adultery and a capital crime at the time. So Judah condemns her to death. But of course the irony is, is that he is the father. If anyone has acted ignobly here it's he. She has acted with the purest of intentions.
So at that moment Tamar as she's being led out to her doom, she does something brave, she sends out Judah's coat, the coat that he had given her for safekeeping while he went to find the goat, and she says; Haker nah - do you recognize this? The same words that Judah himself said in the previous story. Now Tamar has actually done something very dangerous here because she actually has evidence, she has this coat, one call to the National Enquirer and it's all over, she could just expose Judah. But she doesn't do that, she gives him a choice. He could have just allowed her to die and pretended that he didn't recognize the coat, but to Judah's credit; Vayakira - he recognizes it, and he says; Tzadkah mimeni - she is more righteous than I. With that Tamar's life is saved and the lives of the two children that she is carrying, Peretz and Zerach. Those two children will be born and Peretz will become the scion of the Davidic dynasty of kings.
The story of Judah and Tamar is a story about Yehuda spiritual greatness. Yes, he was a man who was seduced but he was also a man who said, Haker Nah, who recognized the truth instead of hiding it when it would have been the easiest thing to cover it up. Indeed, in the story of Yehuda and Tamar, Yehuda does nothing less than actualize his own name. When he was named Yehuda by his mother Leah he was named that because; Hapa'am odeh et Hashem - I can finally thank G-d. As we've talked about in other videos, the idea of Hoda'ah, of thanks, its core is acknowledgement, is recognition. When Yehuda can recognize the most painful thing of all, that he, the powerful judge, is not as noble as he might seem, and this woman condemned to death is actually the heroine. When he can recognize that - indeed publicly recognize that - that's when he gets his coat back, that's when he gets his staff back, that's when he gets his signet ring back. Who carries around a coat, a staff, and a signet ring? A king does. That's when Judah gets kingship back.
You remember what Rashi said; Shehoriduhu echov migedulato - the brothers caused him to descend, politically, from his position of power over them. Remember Judah ultimately will be the tribe from which kings came and he was the beginning of a leader already with the sale of Joseph. He led them astray in the sale of Joseph, and the brothers called him on it and caused him to descend from his position of leadership. So you know what's happening when he promises Tamar a goat, and he doesn't have it and Tamar says, well I'll take your staff, your signet ring and your cloak? She is dethroning him, she is taking away from him what he no longer has the right to have. But the story of Yehuda and Tamar is also the story about how he gets back these things. He claims it back with the words Haker Nah, when he recognizes those things, and he recognizes her greatness.
Had Yehuda failed in the story of Yehuda and Tamar he would have lost his coat, his signet ring and his staff forever. Judah in the end wins the kingship but he can only be a king if he can rise to the Haker-Nah-challenge.
Now guess what, remember how we looked at the story of Lot and his daughters and we found in it the story of the birth of Ruth's ancestor, the birth of Mo'av? Well now let's look at the story of Yehuda and Tamar, who is born from the union of Yehuda and Tamar? A child by the name of Peretz. That child ultimately becomes the scion of the Davidic dynasty, but that happens because the seventh-generation descendant of Peretz is none other than Boaz. These two stories, the story of Lot and his daughters and the story of Yehuda and Tamar are not just stories that are sort of, kind of, similar to the Book of Ruth in that they're stories about Yibum and stories about seduction. These are actually the stories of the biological genesis of both Boaz and Ruth. Lot and his daughters and Yehuda and Tamar they're actually not two stories; they become one story in the Book of Ruth when Ruth, child of Mo'av, marries Boaz, child of Peretz. They unite biologically and become one, but they also unite thematically and become one.
The themes of broken kindness from Lot and his daughters and the themes of Hakarah, of recognition, from the story of Yehuda and Tamar, these themes come together in the Book of Ruth, and once we see that, the Book of Ruth looks entirely different.
Kindness and Recognition ConvergeSo as we go through the story of Ruth I want you to listen for echoes of those two earlier stories. Ruth is not acting in a vacuum, she's acting against the backdrop of Lot and his daughters. Boaz is not acting in a vacuum, Boaz is acting against the backdrop of the actions of Yehuda. So let's keep all this in mind as we begin to read in the Book of Ruth.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.