In addition, Elimelech’s son, Machlon who has also died, has left a widow, Ruth. As the closest relative, Ploni has the right to redeem the land and marry Ruth and thereby ensure the spiritual continuity of Elimelech’s seed. However, he turns down this opportunity, and the next closest relative, Boaz, redeems the land and marries Ruth.
The reason he refuses to marry Ruth, is because she is a Moavite convert. The Torah forbids a Jew to marry a Moavite convert. However, there was a tradition, that this Mitzva only applied to male converts, whereas it is permitted to marry a female Moavite convert. Yet there remained people who still claimed that the prohibition also applies to female Moavite converts.
Indeed, even at the time of David HaMelech, a descendant of Ruth, Doeg HaEdomi attempted to prove from logic that the prohibition does apply to female Moavites as well. The controversy was only finally abated when Amasa ben Yeser said that he had a tradition from Shmuel HaNavi that it is a Halacha LeMoshe MiSinai that the prohibition only applies to Moavite men. However, at the time of Ruth’s conversion there was still some controversy, and Ploni did not want to marry her, stating that he feared that his future seed would be ruined if it came from her. Boaz, the next in line to redeem Ruth, had no such fears, and married Ruth, thereby begetting the Davidic dynasty that will ultimately produce the Moshiach.
There are a number of questions on Ploni’s actions in this episode. We will first approach the issue on a halachic level, and then on from a hashkafic perspective. The first question is what was the halachic motivation of Ploni? If it was simply that he wanted to be strict, then how could Boaz, who was the leading Gadol of the generation, be more lenient?
Secondly, the Brisker Rav asks, that the reason that Ploni gives for not marrying Ruth is difficult. He says that the reason is that he fears that that his seed would be damaged because the children borne of a marriage with a person forbidden to marry into the Jewish people would likewise be forbidden to marry Jews. Why did he not simply say that he was fearful that it was forbidden to marry Ruth, because of the potential prohibition to marry a Moavite convert?!
The Brisker Rav answers that it was indeed the accepted halacha that it was permitted to marry a female Moavite convert. However, Ploni believed that the halacha was based on the Beis Din’s understanding of the Torah verses. There is a halachic principle that if a greater Beis Din arises, it can nullify rulings of previous Batei Din. Thus, he was fearful that a greater Beis Din would maybe reverse the ruling of the present Beis Din and forbid marrying a Moavite convert, and consequently, any children from such a union would be forbidden to marry into the Jewish people.
Accordingly, we understand that he was not afraid of sinning It was permitted at that time to marry a female Moavite at that time, so no issur was being transgressed. However, if a future Beis Din would reverse this ruling, then any children that Ploni would have had through Ruth, would retroactively be forbidden to marry into the Jewish people, hence is fear of the possible adverse effect for his future offspring.
On a hashkafic level, the question arises, of whether Ploni actually did anything wrong – it would seem that he was simply being fearful of damaging his future descendants. However, Chazal do not seem to be so complimentary about him. They say that the word almoni alludes to the fact that he was ilem (blind) to the words of Torah in that his fear of marrying Ruth was totally unfounded. Accordingly, the question now arises, as to why he is viewed so harshly.
The key to answering this can be found in the words of the Targum Yonasan to explain the meaning of the word, ‘Ploni’. The Targum translates the word ‘Ploni’ to mean that he was a man who was private in his ways. The Mishbetsos Zahav explains that he was a selfish person who had no interest in being a leader. Consequently, he did not sufficiently care about the great kindness he would be doing by redeeming Elimelech’s field and marrying Ruth. This would involve not only kindness to Ruth, but kindness to Elimelech in that it would mean spiritual continuation for his family.
The Kabbalists also say that the child that resulted from a union with Ruth was a gilgul (reincarnation) of her first husband, Machlon. Therefore, marrying Ruth would return spiritual life to Machlon. But it appears that Ploni’s inherent concern only for his self, caused him to err in his unjustified fear of what may happen in the future. Such a concern was not a result of Yiras Shamayim, because if it was, then surely Boaz would have had the same concern, rather it was an outcome of his concern for himself.
All this does not mean that Ploni was a bad person, and we do not see that he was punished for refusing to marry Ruth. Indeed, one opinion in Chazal hold that his name was Tov, meaning good, and since a person’s name indicates his essence, it seems that he was certainly not an evil person, and may well have been a ‘good’ person. However, the consequence of his failure to redeem Ruth, was that he is doomed to anonymity when he could, like Boaz, have been associated with greatness, in being the ancestor of David HaMelech and the line to Moshiach.
In this vein, when Rebbetsin Dina Weinberg, tlita, was asked by non-religious people, why they have to keep the Torah, and ‘why isn’t it enough just to be a ‘good’ person?’, she would answer that in Judaism, it is not enough to be ‘good’, rather we must strive to be ‘great’. Tov may have been a good person, but he missed his big opportunity at greatness. This should serve as a stark reminder to all of us not to spurn our personal opportunities at greatness.