Ploni Almoni is a mysterious man. He is relegated to the shadows of the Book of Ruth (Megillat Rut) and referred to only by this comical, bogus term but never by his real name. ‘Ploni Almoni’ means ‘concealed and muted,’ a generic term, paradoxical to individual identity, much like John Doe or Joe Bloggs. So who was the real man behind Ploni Almoni and why did he forfeit his name?
We need to understand him in relation to Ruth. Ruth was widowed and seeking a redeemer, according to the laws of levirate marriage. Ploni Almoni was her late husband’s uncle and as so, the first eligible redeemer. The Megillah, however, introduces us to Ruth and Boaz first and we are immediately invested in their powerful and genuine connection. When Ploni Almoni abdicated his right to marry Ruth, we are left somewhat relieved that the impediment before Ruth and Boaz has been removed, but it amounted to Ploni Almoni’s downfall.
It is Boaz who called him by the term Ploni Almoni and Rashi informs us that the name is not just a benign description of a so-and-so. Rather, his real name was excluded as a consequence for not having discharged his duty as Ruth’s redeemer. There’s a punitive dimension to the term.
Ironically, according to the Medrash, Ploni Almoni’s real name was Tov. ‘Tov’ means ‘good’ and in Judaism a person’s Hebrew name is said to reflect their inner essence, so he must have been an essentially good character. Unfortunately for Tov, he failed in his spiritual objective. He rejected the chance to redeem Ruth and passed up an opportunity for greatness. It was foolish on his part but it is also difficult to see how this constituted a crime so great that it cost him his name. On the contrary there’s even space to understand his reluctance. Prevailing opinion at the time was that all Moabites were forbidden to convert. Although based on mistaken belief, Tov’s refusal could appear legally sound. He opted not to marry a Moabite and risk contravening halachah in order to fulfill levirate marriage, which was merely customary. He was acting with legal stringency.
His failure was far more subtle than obvious. His failure, in my opinion was his lack of humanity.
He saw in front of him a Moabite, not a human being. He saw a Moabitess, not an exceptional woman. He failed to see a tired, desperate, lonely widow. He failed to see a princess who had shunned everything superficial to cling to her mother-in-law, trudging across sweltering terrains, reducing herself to poverty, all through her loyalty to her family and to G-d. It didn’t really suit him to look for the true person in Ruth because public opinion was against her anyway.
Somehow, in his failure to truly see another, he lost himself.
He lost his destiny, his relevance, his goodness, his name.
Ploni Almoni’s failure stands in stark contrast to Boaz’s heroism. Boaz was the leading judge, so he was presumably familiar with the law, but his humanity prompted him to seek lenient interpretations. In his humanity, Boaz recognised the poor people who came to glean in his fields. He did not see charity cases, he saw human beings, enough to notice a newcomer among them. Boaz did not see a Moabitess or arrive at any other conclusions, rather, he connected, he communicated and he asked Ruth “Who are you?” affording her the dignity of answering in her own words. Boaz certainly did not neglect halachah but he was able to hold space for the broader scenario.
Boaz is the embodiment of humanity. Perhaps that is why his name means, ‘strength within,’ a true reflection of his inner character.
There’s a veiled warning here for us. We live in a complicated time where politics are increasingly polarised and anti-semitism is on the rise. It is extremely easy, if not convenient to view nations, groups, ideologies and even enemies in place of human beings, but in the mix, we risk losing ourselves. It is the example of Ruth and Boaz, their personal humanity and sensitivity that became the seed of the Messiah. We must endeavour to persist in their example because too often when contentious matters seem black and white, the sparks of eternity are hidden in the grey.