Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen – Elimelech And Boaz – A Stark Contrast

Elimelech makes a fleeting, but significant appearance in the Book of Ruth.  It begins by describing him anonymously as a man from Beis Lechem Yehuda who leaves Eretz Yisrael with his family, in a time of famine to sojourn in Moav.  The second verse reveals his name as Elimelech, who Chazal tell us, was from the Tribe of Yehuda and was a descendant of Nachshon Ben Aminadav.  The Navi continues to tell us that his two sons married Moavite women, and tragically, Elimelech and his sons soon perished. 

Chazal explain that Elimelech was very wealthy and was the Parnas hador (the one who provided for the people).  However, when the famine struck, he fled the country because he knew that many people would come to him for help and he chose to avoid that pressure by leaving.  As a result, he was punished with death.  The question arises, the Gemara states that it is permitted for a person to leave Eretz Yisrael in the time of famine.  Why then, was he treated so harshly, when his behavior was permitted?

The answer given is that Elimelech was no ordinary person – he was the provider of the generation. Therefore, he was held to a stricter judgment than regular people.  He was the person who had the ability and responsibility to remain and help the people even if it meant undergoing his own hardship.  Moreover, he was from the Tribe of Yehuda and he knew that the Kingship and ultimately the Moshiach, would arise from that line.   Indeed, his name means, ‘to me is the Kingship’.  This symbolizes that he felt that he was destined to be the progenitor of what became the Malchus Beis David, (the Kingdom of the House of David).  Thus, he had a sense of entitlement, which makes his wrongdoing greater.  In Torah, any position of power, comes with heightened responsibility, not just greater honor.  Elimelech wanted greatness, but when the situation became difficult, he was not willing to take the responsibility that accompanies the perks of power.   With this background, we can understand why he was punished so harshly for leaving the land, even though it was technically permitted.  His position of prestige meant that he was judged more severely than a regular person, for whom it would be permitted to leave the land in a time of famine.

It is possible to add that Elimelech is also put in a negative light when compared to his illustrious ancestor, Nachson Ben Aminadav. Nachson was the first person to step into the Yam Suf, before it split, and whose actions played a vital role in defining the line of Yehuda as the family of Malchus.

The Tosefta tells us that at the Yam Suf, all the tribes were arguing about who should step into the sea first, each one trying to avoid the responsibility to take the first brave steps.  Finally, Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped into the sea and sanctified G-d’s name[1].  The Tosefta explains that this was one of the actions that earned the tribe of Yehuda the merit of being the tribe of Malchus (kingship), which in turn would produce MoshiachNachshon took responsibility at a difficult time, when everyone was afraid to enter the sea, on the hope that it would split, and this generated the merit to lead to the Kingship.  Elimelech faced his own challenge of responsibility and failed, instead choosing to escape the responsibility.  Consequently, he lost the opportunity to be the progenitor of the Malchus.

Elimelech had a relative who also features in Megillah Ruth, who succeeded where Elimelech failed – Boaz[2].  Where do we see this? Firstly, it is evident from the fact that Boaz was also a person who people relied on financially, as is seen in the episodes involving his kindness with his fields.  Yet, unlike Elimelech he remains in the land despite the famine, and continues to help people as much as possible.

Secondly, the incident involving the redemption of Elimelech’s property, and marriage to his daughter-in-law demonstrates Boaz’ ability to take responsibility.  As we have discussed in another article,[3] Ploni Almoni refused the opportunity to marry Ruth because of an unfounded fear that a future Beis Din may rule that it is forbidden to marry a female Moavite convert.  His underlying motives were a level of selfishness and unwillingness to take a difficult step.  The consequence of his actions is that he is confined to anonymity.  Boaz, in contrast, did not hesitate to marry Ruth despite the naysayers and critics.  The result, was the birth of Ehud, who in turn had Yishai, to whom David HaMelech was born.  Thus, in the same way that Nachshon’s brave action of taking responsibility bore tremendous fruit, so too did Boaz’s bold actions.

We have seen from the strict punishment that befell Elimelech that positions of power come with heightened responsibility – Elimelech strove to be the forebearer of Malchus but was not willing to undergo the mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) required to be a leader.  Boaz, in contrast, readily assumed the mantle of leadership and merited to be the progenitor of Moshiach.  Their contrasting examples teach us that as intoxicating positions of power and honor may be, they invariably required a heightened sense of responsibility and self-sacrifice.

[1] Tosefta, Brachos, C h.4, Halacha 16.

[2] One opinion in Chazal says that he was Elimelech’s younger brother (Ruth Rabbah, 6:2), and another (Bava Basra, 91a), says that he was Elimelech’s nephew.

[3] Ploni Almoni – Good but not Great.