Shavuos: The Torah’s mystery man

Festivals-of-Faith1-200x300By Rabbi Norman Lamm

The Book of Ruth read on Shavuot is a beautiful and inspiring story, instructive to us in many ways. The story itself is fairly simple, and most of us are, or should be, well acquainted with it. The cast of characters is well-known: Boaz, Ruth and Naomi as the major characters, and Orpah, Elimelekh, Mahlon and Kilyon as the minor characters.

But there is one personage who makes a brief appearance in this Book (chapter 4) whom we may designate as the “Mystery Man”! The Bible doesn’t even give him a name. He is an anonymous and therefore mysterious character. You recall that Boaz was determined to marry this young widow of his cousin, this Moabite girl Ruth who had embraced Judaism. Now since Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi owned the land left to them by their respective husbands, marriage would mean that these estates would be transferred to the new husbands. Let us remember that in those days real estate had more than commercial value—it meant the family inheritance, and sentiment was supported by law in making every attempt to keep property within the family or as close to it as possible. Now while Boaz was a first cousin, there was a closer relative—the brother of Elimelekh, the father of her late husband. Before Boaz could marry her and take possession of the family property, he needed the closer relative’s consent (this relative is called the go’el or redeemer, for he redeems the family’s possessions). Boaz therefore met this man and offered him priority in purchasing the lands of father and sons. He seemed willing to do this, regardless of price. But when Boaz told him that he would also have to marry Ruth if he should redeem the land, the go’el hesitated, then refused. I can’t do it, he said. Boaz was then next in line for the right of redemption, and that he did, and, of course, he married Ruth. From this union, four generations later, came one of the greatest Jews in our long history, King David.

Who is this relative who missed the historic opportunity to enter history? What is his name? We do not know. The Bible does not tell us. It does tell us rather pointedly that it does not want to mention his name. When the book describes Boaz’s calling to the man to offer him the chance of redemption, we read that Boaz said, “Come here such a one and sit down” (Ruth 4:1). Peloni Almoni—“such a one.” Lawyers might translate that as “John Doe.” Colloquially we might translate those words as “so-and-so,” or the entire phrase in slang English would read, “and he said, hey you, come here and sit down.” Translate it however you will, the Torah makes it clear that it has no wish to reveal this man’s name. Evidently he doesn’t deserve it. He isn’t worthy of having his name mentioned as part of Torah.

We may rightly wonder at the harsh condemnation of this person by the Torah. Why did he deserve this enforced anonymity? He was, after all, willing to redeem the land of his dead brother and nephew. But he balked at taking Ruth into the bargain as a package deal and marrying her out of a sense of duty. Well, who wouldn’t do just that? Are those grounds for condemnation?
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