Shavuot: Boaz

Ten elders sit by the city gate,
waiting, watching, eyes asquint
as the sun goes down on dappled fields
and gleaners wander home.
And you stand up unflinchingly
and resolutely claim,
before these silent witnesses,
your right to marry Ruth.
And yes, you know about her baggage:
daughter of the house of Moab
widow of Elimelech’s son,
who left the Land when times were bad.
Yet you love her for her kindness,
for her steadfast trust in God,
and you take her to you openly
and she becomes your wife.

Megillat Ruth recounts the story of the family of Elimelech, a man of wealth and standing, who lives in Bethlehem in the time of the judges. A famine strikes the land so Elimelech takes his wife Naomi and his two sons Machlon and Chilion and they flee to the land of Moab.  The Soncino summary of the Book of Ruth by Judah J. Slotki comments on the relationship between Israel and Moab, which oscillated between friendly and hostile, and in the Book of Ruth can be assumed to have been amicable. However,  Slotki adds that it is unsurprising that tradition looks unfavorably at Elimelech’s going.  Although the Moabites were descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew (by an incestuous liason between Lot and his daughter), they had taken a different route through history and did not espouse the faith in God and adherence to the Torah of the Israelites. The Moabite people had displayed hostility when the Children of Israel passed near their territory en route to the Land of Israel, and lured them into wicked practices, so they were excluded from entering the assembly of God,  (Devarim 23:4) and intermarriage was forbidden with them (Devarim 23:3, Ezra 9:12, Nechemiah 13: 1, 23-25).  Slotki concludes, “Israel and Moab were separated not merely by a strip of water called the Dead Sea, but by something vaster than the ocean, a difference of religion. The journey taken by this family of Bethlehem was, therefore, not from one country to another, but from one universe of religious thought to another.” The text then tells us that the family “continued there” (Ruth 1:3) which is understood to mean that they decided to take up permanent residence in Moab, and then Elimelech dies. Somewhat predictably perhaps, Machlon and Chilion marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. And then, after ten years of childless marriage, both Machlon and Chilion die. At this point, having heard that the famine is over, Naomi, widowed, childless, homeless and destitute, decides to return home, there being nothing left for her in Moab. She sets off, accompanied by her daughters-in-law. She blesses them and tries to convince them to return to their parents, because she says they will be able to remarry, but they cry and say they will go with her. She reiterates her desire that they should go home and remarry and finally Orpah is convinced, but Ruth is adamant and determined to follow Naomi to her people and her God. The two women return to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest, and Naomi describes herself as bitter and empty. Ruth, who is both kind and hardworking, metaphorically rolls up her sleeves and goes out to glean corn to sustain herself and her beloved mother-in-law, in the fields of a prosperous relation of Elimelech’s called Boaz. Boaz has heard of her kindness and loyalty in following Naomi to a foreign land. He deals with her kindly in return. He tells her to glean freely in his fields and he has her eat with his reapers, and he instructs them to drop corn on purpose and not shame her. Ruth returns to Naomi and regales her with her experiences. Some months later, Naomi sends Ruth to Boaz one night to remind him of his duty as a near kinsman to buy Elimelech’s land from Naomi. He points out that there is a closer relative but he will try to address the issue. He loses no time, and the next morning, he goes to the city gate where the elders dispense justice and address claims and litigations. Boaz hails the nearest of kin who comes past and asks him whether he will redeem Elimelech’s field, and the man acquiesces readily, but when Boaz adds that he will also have to marry Ruth and “raise up the name of the dead”  (Ruth 4:5) which would mean that the property would be in the widow’s name, he demurs, leaving Boaz free to formally buy the land and marry Ruth.
The couple is blessed with a son who will become an ancestor of the royal house of David.

In an article about Shavuot entitled The Book of Ruth: A Modern Look,, Rabbi Juan Mejia* notes that one in six contemporary Jews are converts (from The Pew Research Center’s newly released 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study).
He imagines the scene as Boaz gathers ten city elders to address the case of who will redeem Elimelech’s holding. Boaz clearly wants to give wide publicity to the proceedings. Rabbi Mejia quotes the text of Boaz’s words to the nearest of kin, ““When you acquire the property from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabite, you must also acquire the wife of the deceased, so as to perpetuate the name of the deceased upon his state.” (Ruth 4:5) He suggests that this man, who originally agreed to buy the land, may have backed down because Ruth was a Moabitess, for he responds, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I mar my own inheritance!” (Ruth 4:6). The Soncino commentary submits that he was wary of “tainting his pedigree”.
Rabbi Mejia notes that we do not know this man’s name – the text merely refers to him  as “Peloni Almoni,” that is, an anonymous person. The Soncino commentary posits that the explanation for this might be that “the name is withheld out of deference to his position, he being a person of note who should not have selfishly refused to discharge his duty as a kinsman.” Rabbi Mejia submits, “Because he refused to redeem a soul, his name was forgotten. Because he was willing to accept the land, but not willing to reach out to the stranger, his memory was blotted out from the land.”
He continues, citing from the fourth chapter of the Megilla, “Boaz, knowing the kindness of Ruth, her enduring love for Naomi and for her God, then responds: “You are my witnesses today that I am acquiring from Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to his sons.” (4:9) Even though they strayed away from the land and estranged themselves from their people, I am willing to take them back. “I am also acquiring Ruth the Moabite.” Yes, because it is no shame that she is a Moabite. “The wife of Machlon,” Yes, she has a story. I honor and recognize it. “…as my wife.” For I see her as she is: all love and intention, not the conglomerate of her past and her lineage. “You are my witnesses today.” I do this. Not secretly, not shamefully, but publicly sanctifying and welcoming her into the loving arms of my family, and through this, my faith and my people.”
Rabbi Mejia concludes, “What was Boaz´s reward? “Boaz begot Obed, Obed begot Jesse, Jesse begot David.” (Ruth 4:21-22) One single act of kindness, of openness, of inclusion of this unpopular stranger led to the greatest king in our history. A king whose lineage, we believe, will help the world achieve its original intention. Because he redeemed a soul, he brought redemption to the world. May we live in his example always.”

*Rabbi Juan Mejia was born in Bogotá, Colombia in 1977. When he was 15, he discovered his converso roots which led him on a Jewish journey and eventually the Conservative rabbinate. He lives in Oklahoma City and teaches about Judaism to Spanish Jews around the world.


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