The Allegory of Ruth

My father’s yahrzeit is the second day of the Jewish month of Sivan. When I heard the Book of Ruth chanted a few days later on Shavuot that year, I understood it as a prophetic allegory in which the names of the protagonists are the key to the allegory. My interpretation is Zionist, undoubtedly influenced by my father’s memory — he was an ardent Zionist.

First a summary of the Book of Ruth to introduce the names of the characters: When times were hard in Judea, Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons Machalon and Kilyon leave Bethlehem to settle in Moav. Elimelech soon dies. There, Machalon and Kilyon marry two Moabite women – Ruth and Orpah – and die about 10 years later.
After hearing that the situation had improved in Judea, Naomi decides to return with her two daughters-in-law following her. Naomi tries to dissuade the two women from going with her. Orpah turns back and returns to ‘her people and her gods’. Ruth is not dissuaded and declares ‘Your people are my people and your G-d is my G-d’.

It’s harvest time when they return to Bethlehem but there is no food for Naomi and Ruth. Ruth goes to pick gleanings from the fields of Boaz, who is related to Elimelech. Boaz becomes aware of how kindly Ruth has behaved to Naomi and makes sure that Ruth gets enough grain. After some coaching by Naomi, Ruth returns at night to Boaz. Overcome by Ruth choosing him rather than a younger man, he declares that he will marry her. This he sets out to do after taking care of Ploni Almoni.

Ploni Almoni is first in line to redeem the fields that had belonged to Elimelech and Naomi and is also first in line to marry Ruth. He is willing to redeem the fields that belonged to Naomi and Elimelech but when he is told that Ruth is part of the deal he loses interest. (This part of the story is confusing. It does not correspond to the usual rules of yibum {levirate marriage}.) Ploni gives up his rights to redeem the fields and to marry Ruth. Boaz then marries Ruth and they become the great grandparents of King David.

Machalon and Kilyon – what a strange pair of names! Machalon suggests a sick person and the name Kilyon indicates destruction. In our allegory, they signify the fates of the first and second Batei HaMikdash (Holy Temples). In the galut (exile), symbolized by Moav, a Beit HaMikdash centered Judaism is weakened and disappears.

With the cessation of a Beit HaMikdash centered Judaism, new modes for the expression of Judaism, the Beit HaKnesset and the Beit HaMidrash (the synagogue and the study hall), which existed prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, become more prominent and save some of the Jewish people from assimilation. Ruth and Orpah, the surviving wives of Machalon and Kilyon, symbolize two aspects of this Jewish community in galut.

The Book of Ruth tells of a time after the destruction of the two Batei Mikdash when the Jews are returning from exile to the Land of Israel. The Book of Ruth is talking about us and the time is now!

When Naomi and her two daughters -in- law start the voyage back from exile, she describes the hardships of returning to the land of Israel to them. If they return with her to Israel, they are unlikely to find husbands and have children. Resettling in the land of Israel is problematic and may be a dead end for them. Orpah, Am Kshai Oref, (a stiff necked people) is persuaded by Naomi and decides to live in a familiar, relatively affluent, galut. Naomi sees that Orpah will soon assimilate when she returns to ‘her people and her gods’. Assimilation is the death of the Jewish community in galut.

Ruth, on the other hand, decides to take her chances and follow Naomi. She represents the Jewish people who returned and rebuilt Israel (most of them not observant). Pointing out the difficulties of Ruth leaving galut, Naomi turns to her and says, ‘your sister-in-law has returned to her people and her gods, you should do the same.’ To which Ruth responds, ‘Don’t make me leave you! Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you stay, I will stay; your people are my people; your G-d is my G-d.”

Clearly, Naomi is the protagonist of the Book of Ruth. It is she who initiates the return to Israel. It is she who makes the match between Ruth and Boaz. It is Naomi who is considered the mother of Oved {Ruth 4:17}, the grandfather of David. Who is Naomi? When we read the Torah and return it to the ark, we recite (preferably sing) – ‘D’rocheho darchei noam v’chol netivoteha shalom’ (Her ways are ways of pleasantness and and all of her paths are peace). Naomi is the Torah leading the Jewish people back to the Land of Israel and to G-d. It is a Torah imperative that the Jews return to Israel.

And who then is Elimelech? A dictionary definition of the letters ‘eli’ is ‘my authority’. It is my authority that rules – i.e. I will define the meaning of Judaism, not Naomi. My ways have precedence – not those of the Torah. This approach must disappear before a return to Israel can be complete. Elimelech dies before Naomi and Ruth can return to Israel.

It was not easy for Ruth and Naomi to make Aliyah. They scramble to survive materially. When Ruth is gleaning in the fields of Boaz, he says, ‘Don’t glean in another field, don’t leave this place.’ Who is Boaz who provides for Ruth and Naomi? Boaz means ‘In Him is the Power’. Boaz is G-d. Boaz’s comment to Ruth is a stricture against idol worship – against the many forms of idolatry that seduce us today. The appreciation shown by Boaz, when Ruth does not choose a younger man, also indicates a repudiation of idolatry.

I am fascinated by Ploni Almoni. ‘Ploni Almoni’ is the Hebrew version of John Doe or Mr. Nobody. He is a nice enough person but shies away from making a passionate commitment. He is willing to redeem the field that belonged to Elimelech and Naomi. When he learns that the deal includes Ruth, he makes a careful calculation of costs and benefits and turns it down.

Who is Ploni Almoni in this allegory? We are Ploni Almoni – the Jewish communities of the galut. (We certainly includes me.) Ploni is willing to invest in Israeli real estate – perhaps buy an apartment in Israel. Ploni may talk and feel strongly about Israel – so strongly that he wants to remake Israel in his own image – but not passionately enough to live in Israel. Consider the settlers of West Rogers Park and Skokie, who do not become the settlers of Israel. Consider the members of Peace Now, who do not become members of Shalom Achshav by making Aliyah. J-Street is not Dizengoff Street. Ploni is the obstacle blocking Naomi from uniting Ruth with Boaz.

After dealing with Ploni, Boaz marries Naomi and they become the great-grandparents of King David. When the people of Israel are united with G-d, the Book of Ruth tells us that King David, symbolizing messianic times, cannot be far away. The promise of the Book of Ruth is that there will only be two Temples that are destroyed, Machalon and Kilyon. When a third Temple arises, it will be everlasting.

This allegorical interpretation answers the perennial question – why is the Book of Ruth recited on Shavuot? Shavuot is our celebration of G-d’s giving the Torah to the Jewish people. What could be more appropriate than reading the Book of Ruth! It tells us that the Torah (Naomi) will bring the Jewish people (Ruth) back to G-d (Boaz) and to the Land of Israel. This reading of Ruth also connects Pesach and Shavuot. Both Shir HaShirim and Ruth deal with the loving relation of G-d and Israel. I hope that this encourages you to find new insights when we read the Book of Ruth this year.

Chag Sameach!

About the Author
Richard Chasman, 1934-2018, was a member of the Modern Orthodox community in Chicago. Professionally, he was a theoretical nuclear physicist. Richard, who described his perspective as "centrist," wrote a newsletter for more than 20 years called "Chovevai Tsion of Chicago," on subjects of interest to the Modern Orthodox community.