The Story of Ruth (Part Four): To Heal the World

The opening scene of the final chapter finally reveals who Boaz has been all along. 

Boaz went up to the gates and sat there... he summoned ten great men from the elders of the city and told them to sit down with him. (Ruth 4:1-2

The elders were, from the Torah onwards, the judicial authority. The gate was the place where biblical judgement took place, and the first to sit down was the head of the elders. In other words, Boaz was one of those very ‘judges’ that were mentioned in the opening line of the story.[1] 

Either way, in the opening scene of the chapter, it is not Boaz who takes centre stage, but the other redeemer. In front of the senior court of the elders he is offered the opportunity to purchase back the lands that had once belonged to Elimelech. He says that he is willing. Then he is told that if he truly wants to perform redemption, then he must also marry Ruth the Moabite. 

This seems to be a law without precedent. It is certainly not what is directly proscribed in Torah. Yet it seems to be related to the fundamental principle of ‘redemption’. The redemption of land is, in fact, explicit in Torah. Every member of Israel has a part of the Land of Israel. If they have to seal it then they lose he place to which they belong. They become dislocated and exiled. A person without a land. When the family member buys it back, they are genuinely redeemed. The family will be able to return to their eternal portion of Israel. The responsibility to redeem falls upon the shoulders of the closest relative, but so does the mitzva of yibum. We have already seen that he pure Torah concept of yibum cannot apply in this case as none of the relatives were brothers of the deceased, but the concept behind yibum is almost identical to the concept behind ‘redemption’. One is about restoring the family to its eternal land; the other is about restoring the eternity of the family itself. If the family will die out, then there is not much point to the ancestral land. 

Anyone who redeems the land but not the family is not doing much redemption at all. To the contrary they may well be motivated by self-interest. After all, when the last member of the family dies, the land will move to them as the closest relative 

Of course, the redeemer could have claimed that he would have been perfectly willing to marry the true widow of the family, Naomi, if she would have been able to have had children. But she no longer can. And the only other living relative, Ruth, married Naomi’s son in Moav, under Moabite law. It was an intermarriage and is not considered a marriage at all as far as laws of inheritance of the land of Israel goes.

Boaz is fully aware of this line of reasoning, and he makes sure that the reasoning is incorrect: 

Boaz said: ‘on the very day that you acquire the field from the hands of Naomi and from the hands of Ruth the Moabite...’ (Ruth 4:5

There are two anomalies built into this sentence. The first is that the redeemer could not possibly be buying it ‘from the hands of’ Naomi nor Ruth! He is buying it for them, not from them! The second anomaly is the reference to Ruth the Moabite. The land has never belonged to her at all’. What can the meaning of this be? 

A plausible line of reasoning[2] is that he is emphasizing that even though someone else has indeed bought the land, nevertheless the land never fully belongs to the buyer. Whatever relationship the new buyer has, there is a relationship that is far deeper than legalities and transactions when it comes to the relationship with ancestral land. The connection is indelible; it will always really be Naomi’s land. But by the same token he is telling the redeemer that there is another relationship that has attained a similar status – and that is Ruth and Naomi. Their relationship is one of total identity. It runs so deeply, that we can no longer speak of the owner of this land being Naomi. The land is now to be identified with a relationship; it belongs to ‘Naomi and Ruth the Moabite. The act of redemption is the act of recreating Naomi’s family and Naomi now lives in the context of a relationship so deep and so interdependent, that it is indeed possible to bring her family back to life, and to restore their lineage.  

When redemption is understood in that way, then it will indeed be meaningless if he does not also choose to marry Ruth.  

The redeemer now faces a dilemma. He wants to buy back the ancestral land. His motives may have been genuinely charitable. But what Boaz is now telling him is that the Torah’s law of redemption is not about charity. Charity is nice but it is not enough. As Ruth taught, in charity finance is given, and dignity is taken. But if the redeemer wants to genuinely fulfil what the Torah intended with redemption, then he will need to engage in a quasi-yibum. He will need to give of his future to someone who is dead. That requires a rising above ego into a world where it is not about who is in control. It is not about who takes and who gives. It is about a place of connection that is way deeper than all of that. It is a place where our identity can be truly at one with that of another. But it is simply inaccessible to someone still holding on to their own little ego.  

In this case the redeemer had another problem. Ruth was a Moabite. There was a Torah prohibition against marrying any men from Moav. It never been clarified as to whether that prohibition also applied to Moabite women. Boaz had gathered the elders in order to rule decisively on that issue. He made it clear to all of them that Ruth was a Moabite so that anyone who objected could raise it. The text never tells us whether there was any discussion or debate that arose as a result.[3] If there was, then it must have been concluded with a decisive ruling because the offer stands. The redeemer not only can marry Ruth, but must do so if he is to genuinely be redeeming this land. 

Yet even if the marriage were permitted, there were still apparent societal taboos against marrying a stranger. The Torah is clear that we must love the immigrant, the stranger and the convert. But the opening chapter told us of the flaws of the people in respecting and fulfilling Torah law. All along there have been numerous hints as to the way in which the townspeople gossiped and made Ruth feel an outsider. Boaz has worked hard to try to get people to see the Divine spark within each person. But the redeemer still worried about his own reputation. 

The redeemer replied: ‘I am cannot redeem it myself; I could destroy my own inheritance!... (Ruth 4:6

A simple reading suggests that his rejection of Ruth is because he is afraid of the long-term reputational damage to him, and to his future descendants. They will be stigmatised forever. But the specific word choices tell us that there was much more going on. The Hebrew word ‘lo uchal li’ literally mean ‘I cannot redeem it for me!’. The redeemer had been willing to be charitable. But it had always been about ‘me’. It had always been about his needs and his achievements. Apart from any reputational issues, there was the problem of marrying someone to give birth to another person’s children. His inheritance will be shared amongst children who go under someone else’s name. He is scared that he would destroy his own inheritance! 

There is a painful irony that the one person who cared so deeply about his own reputation and his own eternity, is remembered only for his failure to rise above his ego and his reputation. He is actually referred to as ‘Ploni almoni which is the Hebrew equivalent of ‘Mr. Anonymous’. The woman he rejected for fear of reputation and inheritance, becomes the mother of the greatest inheritance of all – the King of all of Israel and ultimately the Messianic redeemer.  

Boaz steps in and announces that he himself will step up and restore both the land and the family; he will marry Ruth. But he makes sure that the town is going to fully understand all of the implications and lessons that come with this decision. 

Boaz said to the elders and all the people, ‘You are witnesses today that I have acquired... all that belongs to Elimelech, Machlon and Kilyon. I am also marrying Ruth the Moabite, wife of Machlon, to be my wife in order to restore the name of the deceased upon his inheritance, so that the name of the deceased will never be lost amongst his brothers, nor from the gates of his place. You are witnesses today!’ (Ruth 4: 9-10

For Boaz it was crucial that the whole town witness and absorb all that had transpired. They needed to see firsthand that it was genuinely possible to perform such an act of redemption to genuinely transcend the ego and genuinely be restoring the name, land and lineage of the dead. But Boaz wanted the people to absorb the lesson that he himself had learned from Ruth. That to do so does not involve dissolving nor shrinking of self. Removing the ego does not leave a smaller self; it allows for a deeper, more expansive identity.  

At first it may have come as a shock to the people. But as they processed the whole event, and absorbed all the lessons learned, something happened to them. Rather than reject Ruth, they embraced her. In fact, they did far more than that. They began to absorb just how incredible Ruth really is. They realise how Ruth’s ideas and attitudes can rebuild the brokenness of society and the very fabric of the nation itself. In a sense she would be a matriarch of a people reborn! 

The people at the gate, and the elders, all declared: ‘We are witnesses! May Hashem offer the gift of [Ruth] who is joining your home to be like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built the house of Israel!’ (Ruth 4:11)

It is hard to overstate the significance of all that is contained in these words. Throughout Israel’s history the nation struggled with coming from two mothers, Rachel and Leah. It was the children of Leah who had sold Joseph (Rachel’s eldest child) into slavery. Centuries later, when the kingdom splits, it is between a Southern Kingdom whose kings come from Judah of Rachel, and a Northern Kingdom whose kings come from Joseph of Leah. The national schism rarely has moments of healing, and the prophets tell us that the full healing of these two parts of Israel are the key to bringing about redemption. 

But the first glimpse of reconciliation has just happened. The town of Bethlehem of Judah, the descendants of Leah, have acknowledged that it is both mothers – both parts of the people – who have been essential to building the nation. That acknowledgment put aside ego and tribalism. As soon as that ego and tribalism are put aside, something remarkable takes place. No longer is it a competition between who is more important or significant. All of a sudden Israel is bigger than one family or another. All of a sudden, we are one people like one body. A body does not have competing parts. Each needs to recognise the value of each other. That attitude seems to have overcome the residents of Bethlehem. Not only are they now able to recognise the value of Rachel as well as Leah. In fact, they are able to do something even more remarkable – for the first time ever they make Rachel primary, putting her before their own mother Leah 

Rachel was the ‘fundamental’ wife inasmuch as it was because of her that Jacob had married into Lavan’s family in the first place. Even Leah’s children would eventually acknowledge the fact. Boaz and his court were from the tribe of Judah [child of Leah] and [the people] said ‘like Rachel and like Leah...’ putting Rachel before [their own mother] Leah. (Rashi, Bereishis 31:4) 

The people also recognise the deep significance of the fact that their very existence as descendants of Judah, is owed to this very type of relationship: yibum! After all it was a yibum act initiated by Judah’s own daughter in law that produced the child Peretz who was the immediate ancestor of Boaz and his townsfolk.  

‘...and may your home be like the home of Peretz, whom Tamar bore to Judah!...’ (Ruth 4:12

Ruth's ego-transformative view of the world have brought about a transformation of the way that we view relationships. It has brought about a healing of local xenophobia and national tribalism. If the story ended here it would be an incredible achievement, teaching us a lesson worthy of being recorded and learned forever. But the story does not end here. After all the whole point of the marriage and redemption was to bring Naomi’s family back to life.

Hashem gave her conception and she gave birth to a son. The women said to Naomi: ‘Blessed be Hashem who did not withhold a redeemer for you today! May his name be proclaimed throughout Israel! He will restore your soul, and sustain you in your old age, for your daughter in law who loves you is better for you than seven sons!’ (Ruth 4:13-15)

The depth of Ruth’s love is so strong that when she takes the child and nurses it, it is as if it is not her at all, but Naomi. Ruth has become the ultimate surrogate. Her ego has been so transcended that her child really is Naomi’s child. 

Naomi took the child... and she became his nurse! All the neighbours...declared ‘a son has been born to Naomi! (Ruth 4:16-17)

For a moment it seems as if Ruth has gone altogether. As if her sacrifice had really involved a total loss of self. But that would violate the whole point of creation. God created a world to give to us. The goal of life is to dissolve our self-centred ego, but not to dissolve our sense of self. Rather it is to deepen and expand hat self through layers of expanded identity. As we leave our ego, we discover the love of others and build family. As we go deeper, we find the love of Israel, and ultimately all Adam-kind. Ultimately, we find ourselves moving from loving our neighbour as if we are one big self, to loving the Creator of all existence. Ruth has not disappeared. The ego of Ruth has gone altogether. In its place she has become the mother of the whole nation. Her name has left the final verses of the story; it has become the name of the whole story. 

What she has taught us transformed Bethlehem there and then, and it transformed Israel ever after. Until Ruth, having a king would be the same as having dictator. The Hebrew word for a monarch with dictatorial power is moshel. Instead what we seek is a melech  a person who is able to transcend their own personal ego, and help unify and integrate the entire nation, each tribe becoming a vital organ, each community an essential tissue, and each individual a crucial cell, in the integrated body of Israel. There is one family whose essence embodies that ability. It is the family of Ruth.  

...they called him Oved. He is the father of Yishai who is the father of David. (Ruth 4:17

The final five verses form an epilogue, tracing the seed of Judah child after child through Boaz to David. The ancestral lineage is restored. Israel has within it the answer to the challenge of Sedom. It has the key to healing all relationships, including the relationship with Hashem Himself. We have the key to the ability to receive Torah itself; the dynamic man-God relationship that is the essence of the Oral accompaniment to the Written Torah. If we can only internalise all that Ruth brought to the people, then collectively we can be the redeemer, bringing back Ruth’s seed, and the seed of David to bring healing to the world as the Moshiach Hashem. 

May we merit to see the world restored, speedily in our days. 


[1] Indeed, the true seniority of Boaz can be seen in his subsequent ruling on the permissibility of and Israelite marrying a Moabitess.  Someone capable of interpreting the Torah resolving somethhing that controversial, would usually be expected to be a major judge widely recognised throughout Israel. The Book of Shoftim (Judges) tells us of just one such judge who lived in Bethlehem, and that was Ivtzan who is described as having an enormous family. The Talmud (Bava Basra 91a) records a tradition that all the members of Ivtzan’s family died. Apparently, his new name represents a new identity and new-found strength. Literally the word ‘Bo-az’ would translate as ‘in him lies strength.’  

[2] See Rabbi M. Miller, Rising Moon, pp.307-310 for a development of this theme. 

[3] He made sure that he declared that he had personal interest, and that is the redeemer would not step forward then he was next in line:  ‘If you will redeem, then redeem! but if you will not redeem then tell me... for there is no-one else to redeem apart from you and me who comes after you.‘ (4:4) That statement would effectively have recused himself from any debate about the issue and allowed the elders to have delivered a supportive ruling with no bias.  

- May 20th 2020

About the Author

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Rabbi Daniel Rowe Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country. Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".  Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.

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