Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Who Was that Guy?

Megilas Rus - the book of Ruth is read on Shavuos. This is the Yom Tov which celebrates the Jewish people receiving the Torah on Har Sinai. I think that one of the reasons we read Ruth on this day is that her story exemplifies what the Torah is all about. Loving your fellow Jew.

Breifly this is the story of a Giyores, a female convert to Judaism, whose progeny became royalty and will ultimately produce the Messiah.

As the story unfolds we meet a relative of Ruth’s now deceased husband, identified by scripture as Ploni Almoni. Loosely translated - that ‘name’ means ‘so and so’ or ‘John Doe’. He is otherwise referred to by his purpose to the story – the Goel – the redeemer.

The redeemer is the man who is obligated to redeem ancestral lands so as to keep it in the family. This is in fact a Mitzvah. Ploni Almoni was apparently ready to pay any price for the land in order to fulfill this Mitzvah, but part of the deal was that he had to marry his deceased nephew’s widow, Ruth. That far he would not go. He would not marry a convert. Next in line of kinship was Boaz - the leader of his generation who had wanted to marry Ruth all along. He redeemed the land and married her.

It is clear that the biblical narrative purposely omits mentioning the name of Ploni Almoni. This man was not worthy of having his name recorded for posterity. Why the harsh treatment? He was after all willing to redeem the land at any price. In trying to understand this, the sages find that his name was Tov, meaning good. (Rus Rabbah 6:3; Tanchuma Behar, 8). He was in fact a pretty decent fellow. And yet he was punished.

The sages have only one explanation for this. By playing with the word Almoni, they derive the word Illem the Hebrew word for a mute or dumb person. He was punished for being speechless in Torah (Rus Rabbah 7:7). Yes he had good qualities, but being a good person is not enough for a Jew. He was not a Ben Torah. When it came to Torah – he lost his tounge. Had he been a Ben Torah, however, he would have realized the severity of the sin of rejecting a convert. He would have understood and followed the law of the Torah tha requires us to ‘love the widow and the orphan and the stranger, the non Jew’.

The sages suggest that Ploni Almoni acted out of religious convictions. He knew that the Torah forbids marrying a Moabite, the people from whom Ruth descended. Again - had he been a Ben Torah he would have known: Moavi V’Lo Movaiyah (Yevamos 76b) - the prohibition in the Torah was against marrying a Moabite man. There is no prohibition against marrying a Moabite woman. Once Ruth decided to embrace Judaism fully and with complete sincereity - she was ‘Jewish enough’ to marry even the Gadol HaDor. Which she did.

Ploni Almoni, was unfeeling in a Torah way. He was disjointed from Torah both in law and in spirit. He was thus unworthy of being immortalized in the biblical canon.

A name in Judaism are more than just a means of identification. It is also one’s spiritual identity. It is the connection to the Divine. As such it is not only just given at birth. What defines that person is the name he earns via his character and his behavior. If he is worthy his name is precious. If not it is an empty moniker.

Our identity as Jews is defined through the Torah. While our history as a people encompasses many accomplishments, it is the Torah that is our primary identity. Muhammed, the founder of Islam coined the phrase ‘People of the Book’ as the motto for the Jewish people. A phrase that is still used to describe us. Not just any book. But THE book – the Torah! Unlike Ploni Almoni - Jews who are not mute or dumb realize that we are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. If we do not identify that way then our destiny is to remain nameless - our names then unworthy of being carried into posterity.

In our world today, there are so many ways mortal man tries to achieve immortality at least in name. Buildings carry names of donors as do bronze plaques and engraved stone. But peers die, societies vanish, bronze disintegrates, ands stone crumbles. And along with it all names recorded in them. Time takes its toll on names of this sort.

On Shavuos – as in every Yom Tov - we say Yizkor. We remember the names of deceased loved ones. How will we be remembered - not by children or friends, - but by God Himself?

Tzneh Haleches Im Elokecha (Micha 6:8)! Will we walk humbly with God? V’Ahavta L’Reacha Kamocha! (Vayikra 19:18) Will we love our fellow man as ourselves? Will we work for the betterment of our people? Will we delve into the depths of Torah study so that our names will be worthy in the eyes of God? Or will we just be good natured Jews like Ploni Almoni!

Food for thought on the eve of Shavuos.

Adapted from ‘The Mystery Man’ in ‘Festivals of Faith’ by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm.