May 17, 2007
Shavuot -- Book of Ruth
A senior colleague once told me that when he was a student in college he took a creative writing course. One of his classmates could express himself beautifully, but could not conceive any creative ideas on his own. He would always turn to my colleague for ideas, and then proceed to write an excellent paper.
Thanks to his writing skills, he earned a doctorate and eventually became chairman of the English department at a university in the Midwest.
Many years later, during a visit with his former classmate, my colleague asked his old friend, "Isn't there a rule of 'publish or perish' in your university?"
"Yes indeed," replied the professor, "and I have published many books."
"But don't you need new ideas in order to publish?"
"Not really," the professor explained, "if, like me, you publish critical works critiquing that which others have written."
My colleague concluded the story by telling me, "I always repeat this anecdote to teach my members that criticizing is easy, but creative thinking is difficult."
A similar message permeates the story of Megillat Ruth, which we traditionally read in the synagogue on Shavuot. The Megillah tells us that Naomi and Ruth had a close relative who was legally and morally obligated to marry Ruth and redeem her land in order to perpetuate the family name. When asked to marry Ruth, this fellow could only answer, "I will not do it."
We might wonder who was this man and what was his name, but the Megillah, surprisingly, does not identify him. Instead, it informs us that he was called by a nickname, "Peloni Almoni," which literally means "so and so," or no name. In other words, the man was nameless, for he was "Mr. Nobody."
The 19th-century biblical commentator, the Malbim, claims that he received this nickname because he was critical of Ruth. He looked at her with a jaundiced eye, convinced that she would deplete the inheritance he owned.
He did not have the ability to think creatively, to see the larger picture, to recognize Ruth's spiritual potential. Instead, he remained a little man, a "nobody," who could not rise to the challenge.
Megillat Ruth, however, does not only record the story of Peloni Almoni.
It also tells us about Boaz, another relative of Naomi and Ruth, who indeed married Ruth, and from that union King David descended. Wondering why Boaz acted in a diametrically different fashion from Peloni Almoni, the Midrash tells us that before marrying Ruth, Boaz suffered a personal holocaust. Tragically, he lost his entire family and everything he owned. Rather than despair, Boaz regained his strength and perpetuated our religion. Although he could have criticized his lot, instead he saw the larger picture. Therefore our rabbis tell us that the name Boaz combines two words, "Bo" and "Az", which means, "he comes with strength."
We, the generation after the worst Holocaust that ever occurred to our people, cannot afford to emulate Peloni Almoni, criticizing and watching from the sidelines.
Often we give excuses of not being involved in Jewish life because we have strong and even valid criticisms against organized religion. We only see the negative in our Jewish institutions, forgetting that such an attitude produces Peloni Almonis, nothings and nobodies.
We have no choice but to accept the challenge to become a generation of Boazs, whose creative thinking will guarantee the future of our people.
Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.