Truly Famous

Names are a shorthand for who a person is, so when a literary work leaves a character anonymous, it demands our attention.
June 7, 2024
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“Each of us has a name.” This is the title of a poem by the Israeli poet Zelda that was published in 1974. This poem had an unanticipated impact; it immediately became part of Holocaust remembrance, and Yad Vashem named its project to gather the names of Holocaust victims after this poem. (They currently have collected 4,800,000 names.) Zelda’s poem has been read at multiple Holocaust memorials, and reading the names of victims has become a yearly ritual at Yom HaShoah ceremonies.

The Nazis reduced the Jews in concentration camps to the numbers tattooed on their arms. The purpose of this project is to reverse this act of dehumanization and remember their names. They are given posthumous dignity, as our community declares that they will not be forgotten.

Anonymity is a curse. To be nameless is to be unloved and rejected. When mentioning the name of a wicked person, the common custom is to follow it with: “yemach shemam v’zichram,” “may their name and memory be erased.”

It is the names of the Nazi murderers that must be erased, not their victims.

But why are names so significant? As Shakespeare puts it: What’s in a name? A name offers no description of the person whatsoever. One could argue it is simply an arbitrary tag assigned to a person at birth, not very different than the numbers on a shipping box.

But that account ignores that as life is lived, each name accumulates new meaning. The Midrash Tanchuma, which served as the inspiration for Zelda’s poem, says the following:

You find that a man is called by three names:

The name by which his father and mother call him, 

the name by which other men call him, 

and the one he earns for himself;

and the greatest of them is the one he earns for himself.

Names are not just names. At birth, the name parents give their children is a reflection of the hopes they have for them. Later in life, friends use the very same name differently; it now reflects the person’s popularity and status. But ultimately the name that lasts is earned by good deeds, whether or not others notice.

Names are a shorthand for who a person is, so when a literary work leaves a character anonymous, it demands our attention.

The Book of Ruth has a character called “Ploni Almoni,” which is the rough equivalent to “John Doe.” it is a term used two other times in Tanakh, and probably derived from the words for hidden and mute. It is the biblical equivalent of anonymous.

Ploni Almoni is a designated go’el, redeemer. His brother Elimelech left Israel to settle in Moab; Elimelech and his two sons died there. Ploni Almoni is obligated to buy back Elimelech’s fields and marry Ruth, the Moabite widow of Elimelech’s son. By marrying Ruth, Ploni Almoni will be taking part in the ritual of yebum, and in doing so, continuing the name of Elimelech and his family.

When asked to redeem the field, Ploni Almoni initially says yes. When told he must also marry Ruth, Ploni Almoni changes course and says he cannot, “lest I ruin my own estate.”

The simple meaning of this phrase is that the financial burden of buying Elimelech’s fields will force Ploni Almoni to sell some of his current holdings. But didn’t Ploni Almoni agree at first to buy the fields? Ploni Almoni is clearly worried about something else as well.

Seforno offers a different interpretation. He explains that Ploni Almoni didn’t want to take a second wife because of the tension it might create in his home. The ruin he is referring to is of his home life.

Rashi offers a third explanation. Ploni Almoni was concerned that marrying Ruth, a Moabite, would ruin his reputation. She was a poor Moabite woman, and marrying her would undermine his lineage.

(Both the second and third interpretations are hinted at in the blessings the community gives Boaz after he marries Ruth. In it, they say his house should be like Rachel and Leah’s, who are co-wives, and like Tamar’s, who is a foreigner. They are telling Boaz he will still have blessing even if the match with Ruth looks unconventional, because there is precedent for it working.)

Taken together, these commentaries depict Ploni Almoni as a man who carefully maintains his reputation. Some Midrashim say that Ploni’s actual name is Tov, which means good. Ploni wants to look good.

But he fails.

Rashi explains Ploni’s name is erased from the Megillah because he refused to redeem and rebuild Elimelech’s family. Yael Ziegler observes that removing Ploni Almoni’s name is “an apt punishment, measure for measure, to delete the name of the one who refused to establish the name of his deceased relative.”

This however is only a partial explanation of Ploni Almoni’s erasure from the text; after all, other characters in Tanakh sin, but are not relegated to anonymity. The introduction of a character who both plays a central role and is left anonymous forces us to consider the larger message of the Book of Ruth.

The introduction of a character who both plays a central role and is left anonymous forces us to consider the larger message of the Book of Ruth.

Ploni Almoni is clearly a man of substance. He is the elder of his family and has substantial wealth, and worries about preserving his reputation and finances. But when it is his time to act, he hesitates instead.

Ruth on the other hand is virtually anonymous. She lives with her mother-in-law Naomi, who is poor and old, while Ruth herself is a poor widow and a Moabite. Ruth lives on the margins, and would be unknown if not for this book.

Even so, Ruth acts with unpretentious kindness and loyalty, the type that doesn’t make headlines, but makes a large difference to those around her.

Ordinarily, people focus on the Ploni Almonis and barely notice who Ruth is. And that is why Ploni Almoni is rendered anonymous; the Book of Ruth is offering a critique of how we perceive status. The Ploni Almonis imagine that their maneuvers and strategies are of utmost importance, but it is actually Ruth’s love that changes the course of history.

That is why the Book is named for Ruth, while Ploni Almoni is explicitly erased. To use the language of the Midrash previously cited, it is not the name that others give you, but rather the name you make for yourself that counts. And Ruth made a name for herself.

Often the true heroes stand out of the spotlight. George Eliot expresses this idea beautifully at the end of Middlemarch: “The growing good of the world is … half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

The Book of Ruth throws the spotlight on a woman, Ruth, who lived a hidden life but lived it with extraordinary faith and goodness. It reminds us how much the Jewish people owe her for her quiet heroism.

October 7th could have been much worse. The State of Israel owes its existence to ordinary heroes, who like Ruth, devoted heart and soul to her survival that day and every day since. (There are also some Ploni Almonis too, perhaps too many.)  So many of the heroes are what you would call “ordinary” Israelis, but what they did that day was extraordinary.

Like Ruth, they made their name that day.

Yesterday there was a bris in our community. The baby was named after one of the fallen heroes of October 7th, Chen Nachmias.

The baby’s father explained in his speech:

“Chen was an extended family member of ours who was a magnificent man, father of four wonderful small children, devoted husband, beloved friend, and a hero of Israel. Chen devoted 25 years of his life to the protection of the State of Israel, including serving in the Duvdevan commando unit, the Shin Bet, and Yamam, which is an elite counter-terrorist unit. On October 7, Chen’s unit was called to Sderot, unaware of what they would encounter. He was shot twice and kept fighting until he was literally out of ammunition. He left this world a hero, fighting for the Jewish nation.”

And now, thousands of miles away, there is a baby boy that carries Chen’s name.

People like Chen are our heroes. They don’t need to stand at center stage to make a name for themselves.

To us, they are truly famous. And we will never forget them.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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