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The Integral Link Between Nation And Family

Rabbi Avi Weiss

Rabbi Avi Weiss
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The story of Ruth is one of a family in dissolution. Naomi’s husband and two sons die, leaving her with her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. By the end of the book, family is found once again. Ruth marries Boaz and they have a child Obed, who is raised by Naomi (Ruth 4: 17).

From this perspective, the book of Ruth parallels the story of Judah and Tamar in the book of Bereishit. There, too, the family of Judah was in disarray. Two of his sons, Er and Onan, had died. Judah was reluctant to have his third son marry Tamar, the widow of his older two sons.

At the conclusion of the story, Judah’s family also comes together after he has relations with Tamar from whom twins were born.

Interestingly, the mechanism used to reunite the fragmented family in both stories is yibum – the Levirate marriage. In the yibum process, a man is directed to marry the widow of his brother who had been childless. In the case of Ruth, she marries Boaz; Judah does the same when he marries Tamar.

Rabbi David Silber points out similarities in the yibum of the two stories. In both, a double yibum is performed. Judah marries Tamar since both of his deceased sons to whom Tamar had been married had no children. Boaz marries Ruth, but through Ruth, the line of Naomi, was perpetuated.

In both stories, the man performing the redemption is reluctant to perform the good deed. Judah hesitates to allow Tamar to marry into his family; Boaz also seems reluctant to marry Ruth.

Another common feature in each of these stories is that a woman teaches the reluctant man his responsibility to bring the family together. Tamar does this by reminding Judah of his responsibility to marry her and Ruth does the same, reminding Boaz of his responsibility.

Finally, it can be suggested that both stories are segues to our nationhood. Soon after Judah’s family is reunited we become a nation, and the book of Exodus begins. Soon after, Ruth and Boaz marry they have a child, from whom ultimately the Messiah will come – marking the redemption of the Jewish people.

Both of these stories remind us of the confluence between family and nation. In this time of great challenge and struggle in Israel, may we feel the pain of what is happening not merely as fellow members of the Jewish nation but in the deepest way, as members of our own family.

About the Author: Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.


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