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The truth about Ruth’s marriage to Boaz

The Book of Ruth, which is read on Shavuot, is one of the shortest books in the Tanach, but its brevity conceals complexities and the deep spiritual forces that formed the Royal House of David.

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Religion

STEVEN KRAWITZ

The book was written by the prophet Samuel (Shmuel HaNavi) and recounts events that occurred in Israel, and in neighbouring Moav, shortly after the death of Joshua, the original conqueror of the Land of Israel, during the early part of the three and a half centuries of rule by the Judges (Shoftim).

During a famine, Elimelech the prince of the Tribe of Yehuda, the tribe prophesised by both Yaakov and Moshe to produce the kings of Israel, fled to Moav, an enemy nation. He did not want to support the endless queues of beggars and abdicated leadership responsibility to selfishly protect his wealth.

He took his wife Naomi and two sons with him.  Elimelech died in Moav and his two sons then took Moabite princesses as partners, one of whom was Ruth. The family suffered further tragedies: the loss of their wealth and the death of two sons. 

Naomi, a tragic figure, returns to Beth-lechem, where she owns a field inherited from her father and where her extended family lives. Ruth returns with her and converts, becoming the prototype convert to Torah and Judaism.

Although Elimelech and Naomi were first cousins, their marriage was fully permitted: There are no Torah nor rabbinic prohibitions on such a marriage. Their fathers were brothers. The most senior member of the family, was a man called Tov, and next was the presiding judge, Boaz, also as known as Ivtsan. 

As destitute people, Naomi and Ruth, who returned at the start of the harvest season, were allowed to follow farmhands harvesting grains and to collect gifts for the poor as mandated by the Torah. 

Ruth went out to the fields, sparing Naomi any public humiliation from her reduced circumstances. Ruth chanced upon Boaz’s fields and he encouraged her to spend the harvest season in his fields.

At the end of the harvest season, Naomi sends a message with Ruth to Boaz: I want to sell my lands, to a member of the family, and whoever buys the lands must marry Ruth. Boaz guarantees to Ruth that he will resolve this situation. 

Boaz asks Tov if he wants to buy Naomi’s fields. Tov baulks at the prospect of marriage to Ruth, due to her Moabite roots and the Torah’s prohibitions on marrying converts from Moav. 

Boaz agrees to buy the lands and marry Ruth, maintaining correctly that the Torah only forbids marriage between Jewish women and male Moabite converts, not between Jewish men and Moabite female converts.

Ruth and Boaz’s marriage produced a son, Oved who was the father of Yishai, the father of David HaMelech, giving Ruth the title “Mother of Royalty”.

Why did Naomi insist on a family member marrying Ruth? Some commentators want to explain Naomi’s intentions with the Torah concept of Yibum. Yibum, the Levirite Marriage, occurs when a married man dies without any children. His widow is not free to remarry; rather she is still connected to her late husband’s family.

This connection can either be restored to a state of marriage by marrying one of her husband’s brothers, or must be severed by a ceremony called Chalitzah (since the Second Temple era Yibum has not been practised and in all cases Chalitzah has been the sole option). 

A Kabbalistic reason for Yibum is to channel the soul of the dead husband into a child born from the marriage, giving the soul a second opportunity to ultimately transcend death by fathering children. 

Those who use Yibum to explain Ruth’s marriage to Boaz, even propose that Oved was a reincarnation of Naomi’s younger son, Ruth’s partner.

Yibum could not have been Naomi’s motivation, for a number of reasons: Ruth was not actually married to Naomi’s son and she only converted after his death. There is no Yibum in such situations. Furthermore, Yibum is to the husband’s brother and not any other family member. 

A more straightforward explanation for the marriage is that Naomi was very close to Ruth, who supported her through all her sufferings and felt responsible for her long-term welfare.

Naomi had inherited land she now wanted to sell, and following Torah guidelines, decided to sell to a family member. She simply made the land sale conditional on the buyer marrying Ruth, increasing her marriage prospects and ultimately securing her future. 

Naomi repaid Ruth for her incredible kindness and saw her “adopted-daughter” marry the leader of the generation, a position her husband had abdicated. This reading is supported by the Midrash Tanchuma on Parshas Behar.

A question to ponder over Shavuot is: If Moav is such a hated enemy nation, why does King David, and ultimately Mashiach, have to have Moabite ancestry?

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Charlton

    Nov 1, 2018 at 12:15 pm

    ‘How long were Ruth and Boaz married? I believe it to be just one day?’

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Religion

In the brave steps of Abraham

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In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.

The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.

While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.

Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.

At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.

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Religion

My kind of hero

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The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.

That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.

Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.

Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!

Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.

There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.

Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.

His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.

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Religion

Learning to fall teaches us to fly

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“As an eagle that stirs up its nest, hovering over its young”

Rashi, one of our greatest commentators, explains that Hashem is compared to an eagle since eagles are so different to other birds. He says that they are the kings of all birds, and soar very high. Afraid only of man’s bow and arrow, the eagle carries its young on its back. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, and have no choice but to choose the lesser of two evils and carry their babies underneath them in their talons.

This Rashi is problematic:

Humans carry their babies in their arms. A monkey holds its young in much the same way. And a dog or cat picks up its offspring with its mouth. But what about birds? Do they ever carry their young on their backs?

Surprisingly, some birds do carry their offspring from one place to another, either to get them away from danger or to move them about as part of their daily care. Aquatic birds let their chicks ride on their backs while they are swimming. Sometimes when the parent dives, the little one is carried underwater. And when the parent flies, the chick gets its first taste of being airborne without even using its own wings.

But, eagles? They just don’t do this. So what’s Rashi talking about?

Maybe our translation of nesher is incorrect. There’s the opinion that a nesher is a vulture, but no vultures carry their young on their backs either, so what’s going on? With respect to previous generations in Torah thought, we are never so arrogant as to say that we have superior knowledge. The further we move away from the Sinai experience, the more humble we become regarding the Torah knowledge of previous generations. Rashi lived almost a thousand years ago, and was a giant of Torah. So the best we can do is humbly admit that we don’t understand this Rashi.

One possible answer is brought by Rabbi Slifkin, who explains that when an eagle is teaching its eaglets to fly, it throws them from the nest and dives below to catch them on its back, ensuring that it breaks their fall before it breaks their neck. Perhaps this is what Rashi witnessed and wanted to use to describe Hashem’s relationship with each one of us.

Not only did Hashem take us out of Egypt on the “wings of eagles”, and not only will we be taken to the land of Israel when Moshiach comes on the “wings of eagles”. But every single day, Hashem gentle nudges us out of our comfort zone and while we are flailing and wondering how we’ll cope, Hashem is ready to swoop down and catch us. It’s that fall that teaches us how to soar!

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