The Story of Ruth (Part Three): Relationships and Surrogates

The third chapter of the story flows directly from Naomi’s response to Ruth’s incredible teaching. Ruth demonstrated how humans can fully receive, 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 kindness introduces the episode that dominates the rest of the book: the marriage of Ruth and Boaz, and the roles 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 words profoundly link ‘kindness to the living’ with ‘kindness to the dead’. Ordinarily these are seen as different. Kindness to the living involves the possibility of expecting something in return; kindness to the dead does not. Kindness to the living has all those aspects of control on the part of the benefactor, and dependence and shame on the part of the recipient; kindness to the dead does not. It is the purest form of kindness. 

‘Kindness performed on behalf of the dead is called ‘true kindness’ since the benefactor does not anticipate any benefit from it’ (Rashi, Bereishis 47:29)

Yet Ruth has showed that ‘kindness to the living’ does not need to involve winners and losers. If the receiver and sharer are equal partners in the creation of the chessed (kindness) then there is no expectation of anything in 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 of yibum - surrogate marriage. In the Torah, if a man dies childless then the man’s brother has a responsibility to marry the widow (if both parties want it). It is rarely, if ever, performed nowadays because it is difficult to do it for the right reasons.[1] Done correctly it would require an enormous level of self-sacrifice including almost total abandonment of ego. Essentially the living brother is stepping into the shoes of his deceased brother. The child is seen as the child of the deceased brother.[2] Ordinarily, in an act of kindness, the recipient experiences the threat of loss of self and dignity. In this case, unusually, it is the one who is giving. Yibum threatens and challenges the donor in the way that charity typically threatens the recipient. The first time the Torah records a true yibum the brother found threat too great to bear.  

Judah said to [his son] Onan, ‘Marry your brother’s wife and do your duty by her as a brother-in-law, to provide a child for your brother.’ But Onan, knowing that the child would not count as his, so he  [ensured she never got pregnant] avoiding providing offspring for his brother. What he did was displeasing to the Hashem, and He took [Onan’s] life also. (Bereishis 38:8-10) 

Naomi was about to ask Ruth to consider marriage to Boaz. This was not the Biblical yibum. But it was very much the same concept except, just even more demanding. Naomi wanted to ask Boaz to step into the shoes of the men of her family, but she herself was too old to have her own children. Instead she was going to ask Ruth to step into her shoes and to carry and deliver her child for her!  

After Naomi initially suggests the idea to Ruth, 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 ‘kri kesiv which means that the way it is written in the text differs from the way it should be read. The way it is read contains the primary meaning. The way it is written contains a secondary 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 should simultaneously be Ruth and at the same time also be Naomi! 

Bathe, anoint yourself 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 fulfils Ruth and at the same time offers ‘kindness to the living’ – Naomi – and ‘kindness to the dead’ – her late husband and late 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 by kindness could 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 not self-negation, but, paradoxically, can involve self-fulfillment. She is not stepping back and allowing her body to be possessed by Naomi. 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 own self, 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,[3] Ruth reversed the order, making sure to go down to the barn and only then to dress up.[4] She understood he risks of attracting unwarranted attention, and the possibility of rumours.[5]

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 that yibum challenges their identity, for Ruth it does the opposite. It expands her identity.  

In the ensuing dialogue, twice she is asked the question: ‘who are you?’[6] The first time it is Boaz. Her response begins with the Hebrew word anochi[7] – the existential 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 your maidservant, for you are our redeemer.’[8]  

Ruth’s response contains all the power of her multiple levels of her identity. 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.’[9] She is telling him that this is also about the two of them, and that through this relationship she is inviting him to become the very wings that bring the Divine Presence into the world! Together they 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 latest kindness is 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.[10] 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.’[11] Boaz appreciates is that this new offer is also a kindness of hers in exactly the same way, and even more so! This is not about Ruth or Naomi, being needy people asking him for money and reproduction. This is about Ruth offering genuine deep relationship, that will allow him to actualise his giving potential. Ruth lives by the dictum that it is the relationship of sharer and recipient together that will bring the act of kindness into the world.  

She could 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 have proposed that she sacrifice a true loving marriage with someone her own age, for the sake of producing Naomi’s child. But that would involve both of them being dehumanised and 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 exceeding the 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 closely related,[12] 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.[13] 

As he had done earlier, Boaz gave her a gift.[14] 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 to Naomi as well.  

He measure out six barley corns (Ruth 3:15) 

Was this the way of Boaz to give a [meagre] gift of six barley corns? 

...rather he was hinting to her that in the future there would be six descendants who would come from her, who would each merit six blessings [including] David and the Moshiach! (Sanhedrin 93a) 

Ruth has brought to the world a level of mutuality and depth of relationship that 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 existence could indeed 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 [those who have received Torah] are sustained by themselves! (Berachos 17b) 

Before Ruth it was not clear how this could work. If Torah was just a great gift, telling us exactly what to do in order to receive infinite reward, then it would indeed have been ‘bread of shame’.[15] 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 that Torah 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: Naaseh venishma - 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 truly engage with it unless one truly loves the Holy One (blessed be He) with all their heart, and with every fibre of their being...(Midrash Tanchuma, Noach 3)

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. Perhaps she could not answer, because her status was pending the discussion with the other relative. Or perhaps there is no singular answer for one whose 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 bring Moshiach. 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 until there 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 and revelation. 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 and attitudes will change not just the life of the three protagonists, but the entire nation of Israel forever.


[1] 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. 

[2] Devorim 25:6

[3] 3: 3-5

[4] 3: 6

[5] Ruth Rabbah 5:13; see also Shabbos 113b.

[6] 3:9 and 3:16

[7] 3:9

[8] ibid

[9] 2:12

[10] 2:19

[11] Midrash Ruth Rabbah 5:9

[12] 3:12

[13] 3:13 for other aspects of meaning of the phrase ’life of God’ see eg. Ruth Rabbah 6:14 brought in Rashi’s commentary on this verse

[14] See previous chapter and comments there

[15] See eg. Maggid Mesharim of R.Yosef Karo, Bereishis; R.Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Derech Hashem, 1:2.


- May 20th 2020

About the Author

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

The Story of Ruth (Part Three): Relationships and Surrogates

The Story of Ruth (Part 2) - Beyond Givers and Takers 

The Story of Ruth (Part One): The Problem with Kindness

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