_Reincarnation in the Book of Ruth
by Aliza Bulow
Among the themes of the Book of Ruth is a fascinating sub-plot with mystical underpinnings touching on reincarnation and the transfer of spiritual energies. The story opens with Elimelech, Naomi and their two sons, Machlon and Kilyon, moving from famine stricken Bethlehem to the Fields of Moab. The family was faulted for its move as they were prominent and slated for leadership of the Jewish people, but rather than stay with their impoverished brethren during a difficult time, they shirked their responsibility and chose an easier life in the more comfortable fields of neighboring Moab. Elimelech died soon after the move; our sages explain that his death was a spiritual consequence of his closing his hand to the poor and of leaving the land of Israel. His family, however, did not take the hint, and Machlon and Kilyon continued to stray by taking Moabite princesses as wives. Opinions are divided as to whether the princesses, Orpah and Ruth, converted according to Jewish law before their weddings. Even those who understand that they did, wonder if their conversions might have been tainted, or even invalidated, by the desire to marry into such a noble family. Machlon and Kilyon were married for about 10 years when they too died, childless, of spiritual causes (see Me’am Lo’ez on Ruth 1:5). Naomi, now bereft, decided to return to Bethlehem. She kissed her two daughters-in-law goodbye, wished them well and began her journey. Orpah retuned to her Mother’s house, but Ruth uttered her famous words to Naomi, “…for where you go, I will go and where you sleep, I will sleep; your people are my people and your G-d is my G-d…(Ruth 1:16) ”. Many point to this declaration as Ruth’s true conversion, since here, with Naomi destitute and childless, there could not have been any ulterior motive.
After a long journey on foot, the two women arrive in Bethlehem. Ruth, in the manner of the poor of Israel, begins to glean stalks of barley left behind in the field, so that she may feed her mother-in-law and herself. Ruth’s modest demeanor sets her apart from other gleaners and draws the attention of Boaz, the elderly owner of the field. Upon questioning his overseer, Boaz learns of Ruth’s conversion and of her devotion to her mother-in-law. After sharing lunch with her, Boaz is further impressed with Ruth’s manner. He invites her to continue gleaning in his field and admonishes his male workers to leave her alone. When Naomi learns of his interactions with her, she explains to Ruth the concept of levirate marriage and points out that Boaz is in the line of relatives of possible redeemers. It is here that the subplot begins. Levirate marriage, or Yibum, is a mitzvah incumbent on the brother of a married man who dies childless. In order to maintain both the soul of the deceased and assets of the deceased within the family, the brother, or other close relative, is obligated to marry the widow and redeem his brother’s property. The first of their offspring will be counted as the descendent of the deceased and inherit the estate.
How does this work? How does one man’s seed produce another man’s child?
Rebbitzen Tehilla Jaeger teaches that since, in this world, the physical is inextricably intertwined with the spiritual, when one engages in an act that could generate new life, along with the physical transfer of genetic material, spiritual “genetics” are also transmitted. The Syrian-Greeks understood this idea and cruelly exploited it. During the period in which the Chanukah story took place, a Jewish bride was required by law to submit herself to the pleasure of the Greek governor before she would be permitted to marry. It was the intent of the Hellenists to use the spiritual forces inherent in their seed to tamper with the Jewish nation from the inside out. They understood that, even if she did not conceive from her night with the governor, his energy would remain inside her and manifest itself in her offspring. In this way the Syrian-Greeks hoped to hasten the Hellinization of the Jews.
Taking this concept a step further, Nachmanides explains that levirate marriage is actually a vehicle for reincarnation. Reincarnation happens when G-d gives a soul a second chance to fulfill its destiny. Occasionally a soul does not accomplish what it was sent to earth to achieve. If the soul achieved a critical mass of its goals, but didn’t come close to its potential, then G-d may give it an additional opportunity. Sometimes He does this after the body dies of “natural causes”, and sometimes He causes a “premature” death and whisks the soul out of the body before it can do any further damage to itself. In both cases, He allows it to be born again to have a fresh start.
But the old soul can’t be comfortable in just any new body; the placement of a specific soul in a specific body is carefully coordinated. Each physical body is precisely engineered to be the best container for the particular soul it houses. The soul of the deceased husband will therefore do best in a body that is as genetically close to the previous body as possible. Mystically, this is best accomplished through the seed of the deceased’s brother. Creating this vehicle for the soul of the deceased is considered a tremendous act of loving-kindness.
And what if either the widow or the brother doesn’t want to enter into this relationship? A ceremony called Chalitzah is performed before a rabbinic tribunal. The brother removes the shoe from his foot and his name is called “The house of the one who had his shoe removed”. This occurred in the story of Ruth. The closest relative available for the redemption of Machlon’s estate refused to marry Ruth lest he taint his lineage (through marriage to a Moabite convert). His behavior was viewed in such a negative light that the verse refers to him using the pseudonym “Plony Almony” (the Jewish equivalent of John Doe) to dishonor him by not including his name in the story.
But why subject the refusing brother to a shoe removing ceremony, and why call his name “the house of the one who had his shoe removed?” What is the relationship of the shoe to the marriage? The Kabbalists liken the body unto “the shoe of the soul”. Just as a fastidious person needs shoes to protect his feet while standing in dirt and mud, so too does the soul require a “shoe” to protect it during its sojourn in a world of physicality.
The Malbim explains that when a man dies childless, he leaves his essence within his wife, agitated and threatened by the dissolution of his name and memory. When his brother marries his wife, their offspring is counted as a descendent for the deceased: the child that is born is considered his reincarnation, is called by his name and inherits his estate. By refusing to enter into a levirate marriage, the soul of the departed husband is denied the “shoe” that he needs to reenter this world and his soul is incapable of coming back.
It is to send this esoteric message that Naomi instructed Ruth to go to the granary at night, lie next to Boaz and uncover his feet. While initially her behavior might have seemed inappropriate, the significance of Ruth’s message to Boaz was that the time had come for action: either “uncover the feet” of her deceased husband, and thwart his soul’s return, or provide his soul with a “shoe” by marrying Ruth.
Ruth’s dominant character trait was kindness. This led her to disregard the thought of younger, more suitable prospects for marriage and choose to marry a man who was twice her age. Another beautiful forty year old may not have made that decision, but Ruth’s driving desire was to provide this vehicle for her late husband’s soul. Boaz recognized, through witnessing her other acts of benevolence, that Ruth’s intentions were pure and he chose to participate with her. Ruth conceived on her wedding night, and when the baby was born, the verse states “A son was born to Naomi” (Ruth 4:17) thus confirming that the soul that Ruth brought into the world was indeed the reincarnation of Machlon. The baby’s name was Obed. He became the father of Ishai, whose son, David, composed the book of psalms and became the king of Israel. It is from David that all other kings of Israel, and ultimately the messiah, will descend. Through her kindness, Ruth achieved tremendous spiritual heights: she attached her soul to the nation of Israel, sustained her mother-in-law, redeemed the soul of her late husband, and merited to become a channel for the messianic energy that will bring the final redemption to the world.
The story of Ruth’s conversion to Judaism, her total acceptance of the Torah and her clinging to principles of loving-kindness is read on Shavuot because it is the holiday that commemorates the “conversion” of all of the children of Israel and of our total acceptance of the Torah. As the holiday draws near, let us all consider how we might affect ourselves, and the world, through increasing our own levels of loving-kindness.
© 2011 Aliza Bulow 720 732-3636