The Remembrance of Things Past…
And Naomi her mother-in-law said unto her: 'My daughter, shall I not
place of rest for you that would be good for you? (3:1)
Three months have passed since Boaz and Ruth spoke, the months of
gathering in the barley harvest, then the months of bringing in the wheat.
R. Shmuel Bar Nachman said: “From the beginning of barley harvest to the
end of the wheat harvest is three months “, “and she returned to her
mother-in-law”, and “Naomi, her mother in law said to her, My daughter,
shall I not seek a place of rest for you”, and “Now Boaz is our relative”.
(Ruth Rabbah 5:11). Let us explore this puzzling comment.
Many commentators suggest that these three months are the ones that Jewish
Law mandates a widow or divorcee to wait before remarrying, so as to
ensure that, if she is pregnant, the identity of the father become clear
for purposes of paternity and inheritance. The allusion to pregnancy is
important. At the same time as Ruth was mentally and emotionally
separating from her previous life, a realization and a conviction was
ripening and growing within Naomi.
We must remember that Naomi was a contender and a potential competitor for
Boaz. That she understood it clearly is evident from how she describes
Boaz, “Now Boaz is our relative”, and, “The man is nigh of kin unto us,
one of our near kinsmen” – OUR kinsman. It would have been simple for
Naomi to claim her right to marry him and to resume her old elevated
station in Bethlehem. After all, Naomi was a real relative and, in any
case, a closer relative than Ruth, and it is Naomi’s field that Boaz must
redeem. It would not in any way shortchange Ruth. Ruth can also marry a
young man and rebuild her life. She would probably gladly accept such an
outcome. Is this not the best way, the Godly way, to pursue? Deep inside,
as surely as she knows God and herself, Naomi knows differently. Naomi
knows that this is not Ruth’s destiny, even if she herself may not
recognize it. Now, after three months of inner struggle, Naomi abdicates
in Ruth’s favor. In her appeal, Naomi is speaking as much to Ruth as to
herself. This is Ruth, the dutiful daughter, who has abandoned her people
and her land to succor Naomi and share her fate. The pathos of “My
daughter…”, resound within Naomi, penetrate her soul, and define her
decision, and this is why in these several sentences Naomi and Ruth are
repeatedly referred to as “mother-in-law” and “daughter-in-law”.
There is, however, another dimension that underlies everything. Ruth
deserves a place of rest a “MANOACH”. What is this place of rest? It is
not merely the quieting of the stress of being single and alone. Naomi
referred to that kind of alleviation and easing previously as she urged
her daughters-in-law to return and make a home with some man, whomever –
“ HaShem grant you that you may find rest (MNUCHA), each of you in the
house of her husband” (Ruth 1:9). The switch from the feminine to the
masculine version of the word is highly significant. Before it
was “mnucha”, a state of repose that a woman finds upon remarriage; now it
is a ‘manoach”, the rightful place, the right person, the only fitting
partner in life. Why was Boaz the only place of repose for Ruth?
To understand this more fully, we need to return to the surprising and
constantly repeated motif in this book – that Ruth performed a great
kindness, not only with the living but also with the dead.
And Naomi said unto her two daughters-in-law: 'Go, return each of you to
her mother's house; HaShem deal kindly with you, as you dealt with the
dead, and with me. (1:8). Again, “And Naomi said to her daughter-in-
law: 'Blessed be he of HaShem, who left not off His kindness to the living
and to the dead.' And Naomi said unto her: 'The man is a kin to us, one of
our near redeemers.' “(2:20)
In contrast, Boaz, when initially speaking to Ruth, carefully avoids
mentioning the dead. “And Boaz answered and said unto her: 'It has been
told me, all that you did to thy mother-in-law since the death of your
husband; and how you left your father and mother, and the land of your
birth, and came unto a people that you know not heretofore. (2:11).
Notice, all about Ruth and nothing about her kindness to the departed!
This tells us that Ruth’s kindness to the dead is a very sensitive topic,
one that is entirely inappropriate to bring up at this point in their
relationship. He refers obliquely to it, however, at the point that
he “proposes” to her, in these words, “'Blessed be you of HaShem, my
daughter; you showed more kindness in the end than at the beginning,
inasmuch as you did not follow the young men, whether poor or rich.(3:10).”
The “kindness to the dead” is explored in the following passage. Full
understanding of this quote must perforce elude us as it draws on deeply
hidden and profound Kabbalistic wisdom. However, everything deep has its
expression and reflection on a more superficial level and can be accessed
there as well. I ask that the reader mentally translates from the
conceptual vocabulary and imagery of a long gone era to the one that we
use now. Ability to do so is indispensable if we are to fully learn from
the wisdom of the ancients, who spoke and thought in different mental
categories than we do in our own day and age. As you read this passage,
substitute image, remembrance, paradigm, or energy for the word “spirit”
and it will begin to yield its secrets.
“When a man dies he leaves a spirit in his wife’s belly and it does not
separate from there all the days of her widowhood. If she merits a
levirate marriage, this “spirit” becomes the foundation of a structure “to
build the house of his brother”. If she does not have a levirate and
marries another man, he also puts into her a “spirit”. Sometimes the later
one vanquishes the first one and sometimes the reverse… (Shoresh Ishai
cited in Idrei Tson). The concept that a man’s widow preserves within her
something of his spirit which is then dressed and redeemed through a
levirate marriage is alluded to in the following midrashic passage.
And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, Blessed he (i.e. Boaz) be of Hashem
who has not left off His kindness from the living and dead”. The living –
that Boaz fed and provided for the living. The dead - that he took care of
their shrouds (Ruth Rabbah 5:10).
Sure, Naomi could have married Boaz and Ruth could have found happiness
and contentment with some deserving young man. To human eye that would
have been fine, even fitting. Society would see it as a good outcome,
perhaps it would have even be cited as evidence of God’s Providence in the
affairs of men. However, conventional is not identical with the good. This
would not have been redemption for the dead were then to be lost and
unredeemed, the past forgotten rather than transformed, and the second
best taken the place of the truly good.
Naomi understood. Her actions, her self transcendence, her commitment to
the right and good over all led Ruth to Boaz and the spirit that she
carried in her womb to full expression in David, the King of Israel.
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and Torah.org.