The third chapter of the story flows directly from Naomi’s responsetoRuth’s incredible teaching. Ruthdemonstrated howhumanscanfullyreceive,embrace and celebrate the great kindness the God Himself bestows.
Naomi declared... ‘Blessings indeed belong to God, Who has not abandoned His kindness to the living and the dead!’ (Ruth 2:20)
The kindness to the living is clear, but the kindnessintroducesthe episode that dominates the rest of the book: the marriage of Ruth and Boaz, and theroles that each will play in restoring Naomi’s family.
Naomi told her: ‘he is a relative of ours; he is a potential redeemer for us!’(ibid.)
Naomi’s wordsprofoundlylink ‘kindness to the living’ with ‘kindness to the dead’. Ordinarily these are seen as different. Kindness to theliving involves the possibility of expecting something in return; kindness to the dead does not. Kindness to the living has all those aspects of controlon the part of thebenefactor, and dependence and shame on the part of the recipient;kindnessto the dead does not.It is the purest form ofkindness.
‘Kindness performed on behalf of the dead is called ‘truekindness’ since thebenefactordoes not anticipate any benefit from it’ (Rashi,Bereishis47:29)
Yet Ruth has showed that ‘kindness to the living’does not need to involvewinners and losers.If the receiver and sharer are equal partners in the creation of thechessed(kindness)then there is no expectation ofanythingin return. Under Ruth’s worldview‘kindness to the living’ is at one with ‘kindness to the dead’.
In Naomi’s incisive analysis, Ruth has opened the door for something that would not have been conceivable as an option: to engage in an act ofyibum-surrogate marriage. In the Torah, if a man dies childless thenthe man’s brother has aresponsibility to marrythewidow (if both parties wantit).It israrely, if ever,performed nowadays because it is difficult to do it for the right reasons.Done correctly it would require an enormous level of self-sacrificeincludingalmost total abandonment of ego.Essentially the living brother is stepping into the shoes of his deceased brother. The child is seen as the child ofthe deceased brother.Ordinarily, in an act of kindness, the recipient experiences the threat of loss of self and dignity. In this case, unusually, it is theone who is giving. Yibumthreatens and challenges the donorinthe way that charity typically threatens the recipient.The first time the Torah records a trueyibumthe brother found threat too great to bear.
Judah said to[his son]Onan,‘Marryyour brother’s wife and do your duty by her as a brother-in-law,toprovidea childfor your brother.’But Onan, knowing that thechildwould not count as his,so he [ensured she never got pregnant]avoidingprovidingoffspring for his brother.What he did was displeasing to theHashem, and He took[Onan’s]life also.(Bereishis38:8-10)
Naomi was about to ask Ruth to consider marriageto Boaz. This was not the Biblicalyibum. But it was very much the same concept except, just evenmoredemanding.Naomiwantedto ask Boaz to step into the shoes of themen of her family, but she herself was too old to have her own children. Instead she was going to ask Ruth to step intohershoes and to carry anddeliver her child for her!
After Naomi initially suggests the idea toRuth, she then reveals the details of the plan. Throughout the conversation. The text uses a device to allow us to hear two simultaneous meanings at once.That device is called ‘krikesiv’which means that the way it is written inthe text differs from the way it should be read. The way it is read contains the primary meaning. The way it is written contains asecondary meaning.Throughout Naomi’s speech, the pronounced text tells Ruth that she should dress, and she should go to Boaz. But the written text has Naomi suggesting that in fact it is Naomi who is really going to be going down.The combination seems to imply that Naomi is asking Ruth to go down as two different people, wearing two different clothes: she shouldsimultaneouslybe Ruth and at the same time also beNaomi!
Bathe,anointyourself and then wear your dress [written: your dresses]
You should go down [written: I shall go down] to the threshing floor...
Then you shall lie down [written: then I shall lie down] (Ruth 3:3-4)
Ruth is being asked to do something that fully fulfilsRuthand at the same time offers ‘kindness to the living’ – Naomi – and ‘kindness to the dead’ – her late husband andlate father in law. A normal person could not possibly do this. To a normal person such relationships are zero-sum:this is either about kindness to others or fulfilment of self. Naomi is using double words to suggest that this can, indeed be both. Ruth replies affirming both meanings of Naomi’s request:
She replied: ‘all that you have said to me I will do.’ [the word ‘to me’ does not appear in the written text](Ruth 3:5)
Ruth simultaneously will be Ruth and also will be Naomi!Only someone unthreatened bykindnesscould possibly undergo such a surrogate marriage.Ruth has become such a person.For Ruth, removal of ego, is not the same as removal of her inner being. Removal of ego is notself-negation, but,paradoxically, can involveself-fulfillment. She is not stepping back andallowingher body to be possessed byNaomi. She is not to be a passive surrogate at all. For Ruth her entire personality and her whole being will come to the fore through this.
Indeed, she inserts her ownself, very much using her own initiative, when it comes to actually carrying out Naomi’s plan. Where Naomi had told her to first dress up, and then to go down to the barn,Ruth reversed the order, making sure to go down to the barn and only then to dress up.She understood he risks of attracting unwarranted attention, and the possibility ofrumours.
Ruth was not going to passively obey her mother in law. She was fully and personally invested in the process and in its success. Although some may feel thatyibumchallengestheiridentity, for Ruth it does the opposite. It expands her identity.
In the ensuing dialogue, twice she is asked the question: ‘who are you?’The first time it is Boaz. Her response begins with the Hebrew wordanochi – theexistential word for selfhood. She is bringing the fullest and deepest expression of self to the encounter. Next she says: ‘Ruth, your maidservant’. Finally, she asks him: ‘please spread your wing over yourmaidservant, for youareourredeemer.’
Ruth’s responsecontains all the power ofhermultiplelevels of heridentity.But it also suggests to Boaz that he too can find a depth of self that would allow him to access the many layers of his own self and identity. He would be the redeemer for Naomi’s deceased husband,Elimelech.Ruth would be Naomi, and Boaz Elimelech.But then she offers him to ‘spread his wings’ – echoing the very words Boaz himself had used when they first met. ‘You came [here] coming under the wings of the Divine Presence.’She is telling him thatthis is also about the two of them, and thatthrough this relationship she is invitinghim to become the very wings that bring the Divine Presence into the world!Togetherthey can literally partner with God in bringing His Presence permanently into the world.
Boaz immediately grasps the depth of Ruth’s proposal.
He responded: ‘your latestkindnessis even greater than your first one!’(Ruth 3:10)
The ‘first’ time we found any reference to Ruth’s kindness to Boaz was when Ruth told Naomi that she had looked after Boaz by allowing him to share with her.Superficially it was his kindness not hers.But the whole point of Ruth is that ’the poor person does more for the rich donor than the rich donor does for the poor person.’ Boaz appreciates is that thisnewoffer is also akindnessof hersin exactly the same way, and even more so!This isnot about Ruthor Naomi, being needy people asking him for money and reproduction. This is about Ruth offering genuine deep relationship, that will allow him toactualisehisgiving potential. Ruth lives by the dictumthat it is therelationshipof sharer and recipienttogether that will bring the act of kindness into the world.
Shecould have proposed that they go through the mechanics of trying to redeem land and bear children, each acting selflessly and without their selves. She could haveproposedthat shesacrifice a true loving marriage with someone her own age, for the sake of producing Naomi’s child. But that wouldinvolveboth of them beingdehumanisedand demeaned.Instead,her proposal was far deeper.Together they would be able to build the act of redemption and of kindness, he sharing, she receiving.To achieve that they would need to achieve a genuinely shared identity with one another,with a depth matching exceedingthe love of a young couple.
‘...for you did not seek out one of the young men, whether poor or wealthy.’(Ruth, ibid.)
The deeper their relationship the deeper their partnership in bringing such kindness to the world. In the eyes of Ruth, it is not one who does the kindness but two.And though Boaz could not accept her offer without first checking with another relative who was even more closelyrelated,he did promise her that one way or the other she would indeed achieve the redemption, on the terms that she requested, as a relationship that would bring the ‘life of God’to be manifest in the world.
As he had done earlier, Boaz gave her a gift.Once again there was rich symbolism as to the potential of Ruth to be the mother of future royalty. But this time he made sure that the gift was not only to her, but toNaomi as well.
He measure out six barley corns (Ruth 3:15)
Was this thewayof Boaz to give a [meagre] gift of six barley corns?
...rather he was hinting to her that in the future there would be sixdescendantswho would come from her, who would each merit six blessings[including] David and theMoshiach!(Sanhedrin 93a)
Ruth has brought to the world a level of mutuality and depth of relationshipthat can eradicate the dangers of kindness, and turn both donor and recipient into two entities that between them build something so vast.
Her lesson applies as deeply to man and God. Our existencecouldindeed have been as mere dependents with nothing to our lives but the recipients of kindness. But we are not that for one reason only – because God has offered us the Torah.
All the people of the world are sustained by [God’s]charity, but these men [thosewho have received Torah] aresustained by themselves!(Berachos17b)
Before Ruth it was not clear how this could work. If Torahwas justa great gift, telling us exactly what to doin order to receive infinite reward, then it would indeed have been ‘bread of shame’.But that is not what Torah is.
Along with the written Torah is an Oral tradition. It generated in part by what God has given, and in part by what man receives. It is ‘not in heaven’ but lives in the mind of its greatest scholars.It is the relationship between God who shares His very Will, and Israel who work so hard to truly receive it, that the Oral Torah exists. The reason thatTorah is not crushing, is precisely because it does not really exist at all without its Oral component. And its Oral component is a gift that comes into being through the mutual loving relationship between man and God.
God suspended the mountain over [the Israelites’] heads like a barrel... He said: ‘if you accept Torah great! If not, right there will be your burial place.’Now if you think that he suspended the mountain [to pressure] acceptance of the written Torah, surely from the moment God asked if they would like to receive Torah they unanimously answered:‘Naasehvenishma-we will commit to do, and then to listen [and learn],’ since there is not much exertion nor much pain [to master it].Rather He [pressured them] over the Oral Torah, which provides the small print about both major and minor commandments...For it is impossible to trulyengagewith it unless one truly loves the Holy One (blessed be He) with all their heart, and with everyfibreof their being...(MidrashTanchuma,Noach3)
In the closing scene of the chapter, Ruth returns to her mother in law. For the second time she is asked: ‘Who are you?’ this time Ruth does not directly answer. Perhapsshe could not answer, because her status was pending the discussion with the other relative. Or perhapsthere is no singular answer for onewhose identity is so deeply interconnected with others.All she can do is describe everything that happened. And once again the pronounced text will tell us that she used the word ‘to me’. The written text removes those words.
She told her mother in law all that the man had done for her. And she added: he gave me these six barley corns, for he said[to me]: ‘do not come back to your mother in law empty handed.’(Ruth 3:15)
Naomi understood the full implications of what Boaz meant. Relationships like these cannot be forced. Even one that seems to bring closure to centuries of confusion; even one that seems to have within it the potential to bringMoshiach. We cannot try to control relationships however good our intention. And we cannot try to control history, however good our intention. We have to allow things to fall into place.
[Naomi] said: ‘sit down my daughter, until we discover how the matter will fall, for the man will not be silent untilthere is resolution today.’
History is God’s kindness.It is created out of the relationship between man and God. All that we know is that somehow through it all the final chapter will be redemption andrevelation. But beyond that it is not determined. Its final chapter will emerge from the relationships we create. God’s kindness needs mutuality, and mutuality means unpredictability. We can enter the relationship and then watch as each new situation emerges.
But the seeds have now been sown. Ruth has achieved so much. But even she can have no idea as to just how much her ideas andattitudeswill change not just the life of the three protagonists, but the entire nation of Israel forever.
Mishna Bechoros 1:7. See R' Elchonon Wasserman in Kovetz Ha'aros 36 who argues that since it involves the Torah overriding a prohibition, if the wrong reasons are involved is a sin.
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.