What’s in a name? If the answer to this age old question is everything, then the name Mr. Anonymous speaks volumes. Megilat Rut introduces several characters over the span of its four chapters – Rut, Bo’az, Na’omi, Machlon, Kilyon, and Orpah. Some characters are central to the development of the storyline while others play only an ancillary role. The lives and experiences of certain figures are portrayed at great length while other individuals barely make an appearance, leaving the reader with a sense of unfamiliarity. All of the characters, though, are identified by names. All except “Peloni Almoni,” Mr. Anonymous. Rashi (Rut 4:1 s.v. “Peloni Almoni,” “Peloni,” “Almoni”) explains that the name Peloni Almoni derives from the mysterious identity of the individual. Peloni comes from the word Pela, that which is obscured and concealed, while the name Almoni stems from the word Almon, an anonymous subject.
Peloni Almoni was the first relative in line to marry Rut, but he declined to seize the opportunity. In his stead, Bo’az assumed the responsibility of marrying Rut, and, as a result, it is Bo’az who is cast as the hero of the story and the progenitor of the royal line. Why, though, is the real name of Peloni Almoni hidden? Why is his true identity shrouded in anonymity?
At several crucial junctures in the Megilah, questions play a prominent role. Oddly enough, a careful reading of the Pesukim reveals an apparent break in communication between the questioner and respondent. An odd give and take transpires in which the answers given seemingly fail to respond to the specific question that is being posed.
One example of this type of failed communication occurs upon Rut’s return to Na’omi after her late-night meeting with Bo’az. During that meeting, Bo’az expressed his interest, in principle, to marry Rut thereby redeeming the name and memory of her late husband, Machlon. Na’omi, undoubtedly, waited for Rut’s return with anxious anticipation, and yet, Na’omi greets Rut with a peculiar question. Na’omi inquires of the approaching woman (Rut 3:16), “Mi At Biti,” “Who are you, my daughter?” The formulation of the question is very confusing. If she knows that it is Rut, as the reference “Biti” implies, why does she ask, “Who are you”? On the other hand, if Na’omi is unfamiliar with the identity of the woman approaching her, why does she refer to her as “Biti”? Moreover, Rut’s response to Na’omi’s inquiry, on the surface, fails to address the question posed to her. Instead of revealing her identity, Rut proceeds to relay everything that had transpired the previous evening: “VaTaged Lah Eit Kol Asher Asah Lah HaIsh,” “And she reported all that the man had done for her” (Rut 3:16).
The Ibn Ezra explains that Na’omi, in fact, did not know that the approaching woman was Rut. The encounter between the two women took place during the early hours of the morning when darkness still masked the identity of Rut, and Na’omi earnestly requested that she identify herself. Consistent with this interpretation of the Pasuk, Feivel Meltzer explains (Da’at Mikra commentary on Megilat Rut) that the term “Biti” can refer more generally to any young woman, irrespective of any familial connection. Rav Yonah HaMedakdeik, though, offers an alternative interpretation of the Pasuk. He argues that the words “Mi,” “who,” and “Mah,” “what,” are interchangeable. Na’omi was fully aware that the woman standing before her was her daughter-in-law, Rut. Her inquiry, “who are you, my daughter,” expressed her interest as to “what happened to you last night, my daughter.”
The proposition that the words “Mi” and “Mah” can be used interchangeably, that the question “what” is subsumed within the clarification of “who,” teaches us a profound lesson. To know the identity of an individual surpasses merely knowing a person’s name. It entails an intimate knowledge of what is happening in their life – their thoughts, their feelings, and their experiences. Na’omi inquired, ”who are you, my daughter,” but she was really interested in what transpired. Her concern for Rut impelled her to discover whether Rut was successful in securing Bo’az’s commitment to her, thereby fulfilling her hopes and aspirations.
The importance of recognizing another individual and fostering a detailed understanding of their life’s experiences weaves its way throughout the Megilah. When Na’omi and Rut first return from Mo’av to the land of Israel, Na’omi instructs Rut to collect food from Bo’az’s field. She explains to Rut that Bo’az’s field is a desirable location to seek food since he is a close relative. The term used to describe Bo’az’s close familial relationship is the word “Moda,” “Kinsman” (Rut 2:1, 3:2). It is not coincidental that the term which connotes a close familial relationship also shares the same root as the word “to know.” To be a close relative means to show interest, to care, and to develop a detailed knowledge of that person. Similarly, when Rut expresses her gratitude to Bo’az for his concern, support, and kindness she says, “Madua Matzati Chein BeEinecha LeHakireini,” “Why have I found favor in your eyes to recognize me” (Rut 2:10). Recognition, interest, inquiry, and knowledge are the hallmarks of a close relative and someone who wants to know “Mi At” – not only “who are you,” but “what is happening in your life.”
Against this backdrop, the Megilah’s concealment of Peloni Almoni’s identity is compelling. Rashi explains that his name was omitted since he was disinterested in redeeming Rut. He was indifferent toward investing the time and energy to learn more about her, to discover her background, and to listen to her aspirations. He was unwilling to ask the question “Mi At.” He failed to recognize Rut, and, as a result, the Megilah fails to recognize him. His name is concealed because a name contains so much more than a reference point. It is the first window into understanding a person’s identity. The “who” and the “what” of a person’s life are interchangeable and interwoven into a single fabric.
It is in this sense that one of the messages of Megilat Rut is the charge to abandon the attitude of Peloni Almoni and to live our lives as a Go’eil, a redeemer. We are encouraged to lead lives of redemption, lives that invest the time to ask “Mi At,” in the fullest sense. In so doing, we redeem the lives of others through recognition and understanding and redeem our own lives as well in the process.