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The paradise of mirrored words

Faithfulness and redemption/11 - A good reciprocity between a woman and a man, is always difficult but not impossible

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  12/06/2021

"Why not satisfy my wishes? / I do not wait for your question / If I guess, like you guess of me"

Dante, Paradiso, IX, 79-81

In the book of Ruth, entirely built around splendid female figures, today we encounter a beautiful page that speaks to us of a man, and of a good form of reciprocity between a man and a woman, something that is always difficult but not impossible.

The book of Ruth is also the book of the number three: relations of direct reciprocity open up to indirect forms of reciprocity, couples transcend each other in groups of three. Two is better than one, but without the added dimension of three, the relationship often goes awry. It does not generate, it tastes of closeted, and lacks the air that only that first odd and plural number is able to give. The number three that also appears in the Christian Trinity is not the whole number that follows one and two in the numerical succession, but is the "number" that speaks of that which is infinite, a relationship that opens up to include the whole universe and much more... Because if the distance between three and two were the same as between one and two (or between three and four...), the triad would only be a pair with one more number added to it. Three, which is the simple sum of two plus one, adds nothing qualitatively new. Two is not a beloved number in the Bible (Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau... also including the two brothers of the loving father). Community begins with the number three, opening up a couple to potentially including everyone. The number three is the Samaritan who passes by, bends over the victim and gives way to the new age of agape.

Boaz woke up in the middle of the night, that he had spent guarding his heap of barley on the threshing floor in Bethlehem, and found Ruth lying beside him, having snuck under his blanket, by his feet. Ruth then asks him, being a close relative (Goèl) to redeem her, and to marry her (Levirate marriage). Their dialogue continues: «And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character» (The Book of Ruth 3,11). Here, the author has Boaz addressing the same words to Ruth, that Naomi had ordered Ruth to say to Boaz («He will tell you what to do» The Book of Ruth 3,4) and that Ruth in turn had said to Naomi: «I will do whatever you say» (The Book of Ruth 3,5). We find ourselves in a trialogue composed of the same phrases repeated like a refrain, in a game of generosity where promises are postponed like in a mirror. A perichoresis of love, a dance of words where everyone is both the subject and the object, the sender and the recipient, the lover and the loved one. Here, that indirect reciprocity that runs throughout the entire Book of Ruth becomes a reciprocity of words.

Sometimes we too, from time to time, hear the exact same good words spoken to us that we should have said to the other person in the first place; and it is a rather sublime experience, when those different words manage to grasp that one single moment, elevating it to infinity. Perhaps this is what heaven will be like: each and every one of us will hear the most beautiful words that we have spoken to others, in addition to those other even more precious words that we would have liked to have said but failed to because the words died in our throat. (Perhaps hell will be a symmetrical experience: all the bad words we have said and thought of in reference to others will come right back at us). And once we hear them played out as a refrain of love, we will finally understand them, discovering that they were much greater and more beautiful than we thought the day we said or thought of them. Every gift that returns as reciprocity returns multiplied and changed; it is never the one we first gave, even when it may look the same on the outside.

These mirrored words always end up being an absolute surprise, they are never foreseen or expected, but arrive without warning. Like when, after a long period of discernment and much pain, we finally manage to understand that the only three words of resurrection we have to say to the other person are: "Sorry, thank you, I love you"; and then we open the door and are greeted by only these three words: "Sorry, thank you, I love you". There are many ways and forms of offering a gift, but a gift expressed by a few different words, as they are all gratuitous, is perhaps the highest possible form thereof. Because we love many things, but above all we love the wonderful words designed for us by those we love. And when these wonderful words are missing, or are no longer there, we continue to beg for them throughout our lives. The Bible tells us that at least one wonderful word awaits us at the end of the race: it is our name pronounced by God. This is also part of his good news; we too are his gospel. If the biblical word had not been all this, and much more, we would not one day have been able to read the unexpected in that very same Bible: and the word became flesh.

Boaz continues to say good words to Ruth, to say them well, telling her that in Bethlehem everyone knows that she is "a woman of noble character". He uses the same expression (hayil) that we find applied to a woman three times in the Book of Proverbs (12,4,31). In the remaining 218 times, it is used for a man. Ruth is the only "woman of noble character" who has a name in the Bible. Thus, Boaz continues: «Although it is true that I am a guardian-redeemer of our family, there is another who is more closely related than I. Stay here for the night, and in the morning if he wants to do his duty as your guardian-redeemer, good; let him redeem you. But if he is not willing, as surely as the Lord lives I will do it. Lie here until morning» (The Book of Ruth 3,12-13). Here we have the unforeseen and unexpected, which seems to undermine Naomi's and Ruth's plan. There is another closer relative than Boaz, another Goèl who has a priority in the right of redemption. A very serious piece of news, which breaks the narrative rhythm of the story, a real turning point.

We will soon see what consequences this would have. Meanwhile, let us continue with the development of Boaz's thoughts and words: «So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before anyone could be recognized; and he said, “No one must know that a woman came to the threshing floor”» (The Book of Ruth 3,14). In this passage, as well as in many others in the book of Ruth, the most important things are the ones that remain unspoken, the ones that the reader must imagine and reconstruct from the silence and what is unspoken. All the preparation, in the mind and in the words of Naomi, foreshadowed a scene of seduction: a young woman slips into the bed of a lonely man tipsy from drinking wine, and uses the only resource at her disposal, her attractive and perfumed body, to conquer a man and obtain the redemption of both material goods and life. The tone and the choice of the verbs in Hebrew this passage however, tell a different story. They speak of an equal dialogue between two 'noble' people, who in that uncomfortable and ambiguous context manage to build a true relationship between each other, and become greater than the characters in the scene. They speak with words (and not with their bodies), words full of respect, and Boaz takes great care of his unusual guest. Everything suggests that the invitation to stay and sleep in his bed does not arise from the desire to satisfy an appetite, but from the desire to protect her during the night.

When we manage to transcend the roles that the theater of life has assigned us, going beyond the use of the most immediate and simple forms of language, it can trigger a different kind of relationship, even between men and women. It is not easy for a woman and a man to converse as equals, with both respect and care, in the same bed and under the same blanket. Even less so back in the day than today. The Bible is aware of this and David's lustful gaze and wicked gestures towards Bathsheba are at the center of the Bible, as a new original sin, like a new Cain who, in order to possess a woman, invites a brother to the (battle) field and proceeds to kill him. Boaz's gesture, prospectively, redeems the blood that will later be shed by his nephew David. Both are present in the genealogy of Jesus, not to be forgotten, but to remember. The Book of Ruth tells us that a different kind of relationship between a woman and a man is not impossible; and that therefore, something of great significance is happening on that heap of barley.

Biblical anthropology (Genesis, 1-4) knows that the relationship between woman and man is marked by a wound. There is a mutual attraction between them, a very strong attraction, conceived and desired by the creator for our happiness and for children to arrive, a profound and very special joy born out of this mutual desire, which makes mixed communities the most beautiful and happy there are. However, within the joy of this primary human relationship, Genesis also tells us that a disease has crept in, that something of the original plan of love has been broken and that mutual attraction has been inhabited by abuse and violence. That look of love of 'gazing into each other’s eyes' that existed in the dawn of relationships between man and woman, became a gaze of staring down, of subordination, throughout history, of using a woman's body to satisfy the desires and needs of men. The Bible is as aware of this as we are, but in telling us about this different nocturnal dialogue between Ruth and Boaz, it means to say that that first glance that passed between Adam and Eve has not been lost forever. That horizontal alignment of the eyes can rise again inside our homes, on our very own piles of barley, because that original wound can heal, and perhaps one day it will really heal, permanently. Happiness on earth will never be truly fulfilled until every single woman is looked upon as Boaz looked at Ruth, not one woman less.

Boaz is not a man in love; the text at least does not suggest this. He is not the young man of the Canticle. He is a grown man, perhaps an elderly man, who does not treat Ruth with tenderness and respect because he has fallen in love with her. Men in love are capable of speaking the beautiful words and deeds that bloom from that great and ephemeral season. The problem is the words and gestures of males who are not in love. Boaz is simply good man, and that's enough for us. In this book where "the masculine is a lesser tool than the divine" (Erri de Luca, The Book of Ruth/Libro di Rut, p. 52), we find a prophetic page offered by a chauvinist and patriarchal world, showing us a man capable of a chaste, non-predatory relationship of true reciprocity with a woman. A necessary page, in this day and age where the look women give males has become increasingly disappointed and angry, due to too many centuries in which David's gestures prevailed over those of Boaz, and too often still continue to prevail. May this page then become a prayer, may Boaz's words and actions become ours, and remain so for always.

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