Then said Boaz unto his servant that was set over the reapers: 'Whose
is this? And the servant that was set over the reapers answered and
said: 'It is a Moabite girl that came back with Naomi out of the field of
Moab; and she said: Let me glean and gather after the reapers among the
sheaves; so she came, and continued from the morning until now, she
tarried little at home (2: 5-7).
The servant answers Boaz’ question but then volunteers information that he
was never asked. That Ruth is a Moabite and that she came back with Naomi
is, of course, exactly what Boaz wanted to know. The comments about Ruth’s
working ethic, however, are out of place and should have little to do with
what interested Boaz. They only make sense once we realize that Scripture
often uses the device of introducing a seminal event with an apparently
unrelated conversation. These conversations play an important role as
introduction and subtle guidance to understanding the turning point in the
narrative. Other examples of this technique is Josef’s conversation with
the man in the field before meeting his brothers (Gen. 47:13), David’s
talk with his brothers before engaging Goliath (Sam. I 17:28), and Saul’s
question to the maidens whom he meets just prior to being anointed by
Samuel (ibid 9:11). If so, what does this servant’s response contribute to
our understanding of the ensuing conversation?
It would seem that at that time just as in our own time (and likely even
more then than now), when meeting a new person people wanted to know the
family and the nation from who he or she came and the kind of work or
occupation that the stranger performed (See Yonah 1:8; Samuel I, 25:2,
Gen. 32:18). It is these things that allow us human beings, rightly or
wrongly, to form first impressions upon which future associations can be
added. The servant was in fact attempting to provide exactly this kind of
information to his master and so, he told him that this was a Moabite
girl, that she belonged to Naomi and that her work was remarkably good.
Aside from what this tells us about Ruth, his words throw into relief
Boaz’ refusal to allow this information to shape his behavior and to
behave conventionally, as other, lesser men may have done.
Boaz was not an average person. He was a sage, a divinely inspired leader
of men, an individual deeply tuned into the prophetic tradition and shaped
by Law and teachings transmitted from Sinai only a few generations
previously. His words to Ruth betray none of the biases and preconceptions
of people who surrounded him. Boaz speech to Ruth is filled with kindness,
fatherly affection, genuine caring and true humility. At the same time,
there is a lot more to that conversation than is apparent on the surface.
Before we begin to unpack it, a short introduction is in order.
It is a basic tenet of Jewish Biblical interpretation that Torah is to be
understood simultaneously on many levels. We speak of four levels of
interpretation – Peshat, Derash, Remez (allusion) and Sod ( mystical
meaning, we will not address the latter two at this time). Peshat is the
plain meaning which is not necessarily identical with the apparent
meaning. To arrive to the correct understanding of Peshat one must bring
together linguistic expertise, familiarity with local and extended
context, erudition, sensitivity to religious tradition, and a clear sense
of the principles that one uses to resolve and reconcile discrepancies and
divergent implications of traditions and texts, as well as a pretty good
sense of interpretative balance. Derash is inner meaning, a true meaning
that is deliberately encoded into the text.
Whereas Derash is often subjective and lies in an uneasy balance with the
Peshat, it is especially appropriate for deconstructing conversations, for
undercurrents and hidden meanings in verbal give and take are wholly
within our everyday experience. Anyone who routinely participates in group
meetings in business, education and other settings is wholly aware of this
phenomenon. Consider, for example, a husband and a wife who are hosting
guests who are overstaying their welcome. The husband turns to the wife
and says: “Dear, what time is it now?”. She responds, “It is already 12:30
at night”. Oh , my”, he sighs, “How does time fly! You know, I have to get
up early for work tomorrow”. The guests get the hint and promptly leave.
What happened here? On the level of Peshat there was only a request for
time of night and the husband venting. On the level of Derash, deeper
communication took place. Which is the more “correct” interpretation?
When we take this matter up again next week we will, please God, see that
the conversation of Boaz and Ruth proceeded on several levels. First,
there was the apparent substance of the conversation, that Ruth should
glean in Boaz’s field and that he will facilitate it for her. On a deeper
level, there was an exchange between two unique individuals who, as the
conversation progressed found themselves uniquely matched in intelligence,
moral stature, purity of character, and conception and religious outlook.
On even more profound level Boaz and Ruth spoke of their respective paths
in life, how to serve God, and where He was leading them. It is this
dialogue that developed trust between these two kindred souls that made
possible the encounter on the threshing floor and led to the match made in