Leaving, Returning, Torah, and Home


Abraham left home to go to a foreign land. Naomi leaves a foreign land to go home. Both of them travel to Israel. What are the connections between these two stories that lie on opposing ends of our Holy Torah?

Come join me in learning the midrash below from Dirshuni, one of my favorite books, a collection of modern midrash written by Israeli women and compiled and edited by my teacher, Tamar Biala.

As we make our way through, you'll find both the midrash and the sources it pulls from. Let's look into the Book of Ruth and focus ourselves on Naomi.

Who was Naomi? What was her life like?

Naomi had travelled with her family to the land of Moab to find relief from famine in Israel. She left Beitlechem, literally the House of Bread. Once she arrived in Moab, things were fine for a while, but then her husband, Elimelech, and her two sons, Sickness and Destruction (Mahalon and Kiliyon) pass away. Left with no family, Naomi sets out towards Israel, her birthplace.

(כא) אֲנִי֙ מְלֵאָ֣ה הָלַ֔כְתִּי וְרֵיקָ֖ם הֱשִׁיבַ֣נִי יְהוָ֑ה לָ֣מָּה תִקְרֶ֤אנָה לִי֙ נָעֳמִ֔י וַֽיהוָה֙ עָ֣נָה בִ֔י וְשַׁדַּ֖י הֵ֥רַֽע לִֽי׃

(21) I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. How can you call me Naomi, when the LORD has dealt harshly with me, when Shaddai has brought misfortune upon me!”

How can you call me Naomi, the Pleasant one, when so much bad has befallen me?

Naomi has found herself in the gutter. Here, she and her husband had moved their entire family in order to ensure them a good life, one with enough food to go around, and instead, Naomi returns back from their journey with nothing, save for Ruth, her daughter-in-law.

In reading the midrash below, try to answer the following questions:

-What is the source of Naomi's emptiness? What does she lack?

-What fills that space for her? Can you think of a time in your life or from another source (such as pop culture or the story of a friend) that speaks to this type of fulfillment?

דרשוני - א

מדרשי נעמי

"אֲנִי֙ מְלֵאָ֣ה הָלַ֔כְתִּי וְרֵיקָ֖ם הֱשִׁיבַ֣נִי ה' " (רות א:כא)

אמרה נעמי: מלאה הלכתי בבנים ומלאה בבנות, ונפלו ילדיי חללים בשדה המחלה והכיליון ואני נותרתי ריקה.

"וַתִּקַּ֨ח נָעֳמִ֤י אֶת־הַיֶּ֙לֶד֙ וַתְּשִׁתֵ֣הוּ בְחֵיקָ֔הּ וַתְּהִי־ל֖וֹ לְאֹמֶֽנֶת" (שם ד:טז) משנפקדה כלתי, נתמלאתי אף אני.

Dirshuni - Vol. 1

Midrashim of Naomi by Sarai Elgad

"I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty." (Ruth 1:21)

Naomi said: I went away full of sons and full of daughters, and my children fell, slain in the field of Sickness (also her sons's name) and Destruction (her other sons's name), and I remained empty, alone.

"Naomi took the child and held it to her bosom. She became its foster mother." (Ruth 4:16) When God paid heed to my daughter in law, I was also fulfilled.

(טז) וַתִּקַּ֨ח נָעֳמִ֤י אֶת־הַיֶּ֙לֶד֙ וַתְּשִׁתֵ֣הוּ בְחֵיקָ֔הּ וַתְּהִי־ל֖וֹ לְאֹמֶֽנֶת׃

(16) Naomi took the child and held it to her bosom. She became its foster mother,

Now, let's look to the second part of this series of midrash. Why did Naomi decide to return home? It certainly wasn't easy to move the first time, to come to a land she wasn't familiar with. Yet, now, she has built a life there. She has friends, daughters-in-law, a community. What pushes her to return home?

וַתָּ֤קָם הִיא֙ וְכַלֹּתֶ֔יהָ וַתָּ֖שָׁב מִשְּׂדֵ֣י מוֹאָ֑ב כִּ֤י שָֽׁמְעָה֙ בִּשְׂדֵ֣ה מוֹאָ֔ב כִּֽי־פָקַ֤ד יְהוָה֙ אֶת־עַמּ֔וֹ לָתֵ֥ת לָהֶ֖ם לָֽחֶם׃

She started out with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab; for in the country of Moab she had heard that the LORD had taken note of God's people and given them food.

דרשוני - א

מדרשי נעמי

"כִּ֤י שָֽׁמְעָה֙ בִּשְׂדֵ֣ה מוֹאָ֔ב כִּֽי־פָקַ֤ד יְהוָה֙ אֶת־עַמּ֔וֹ לָתֵ֥ת לָהֶ֖ם לָֽחֶם׃" (רות א:ו)

מה הלחם משיב נפש, אף ההיריון משיב נפש.

ומהיכן באה השמועה לנעמי? שנתגלתה לה דמותה של שרה ואמרה לה: 'בתי, כשם שפקד אותי ה' בבן לעת זקונתי וצערי, כמו שכתוב "וַֽיהוָ֛ה פָּקַ֥ד אֶת־שָׂרָ֖ה" (בראשית כא:א), כך יפקוד ה' אף אותך. שובי אל עמך ואל מולדתך, והנותן לחם יפקוד אותך בבן ויקים לך את שמך'. מיד כתיב: "וַתֵּצֵ֗א מִן־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הָיְתָה־שָׁ֔מָּה" (רות א:ז)

Dirshuni - Vol. 1

Midrashim of Naomi by Sarai Elgad

"for in the country of Moab she had heard that the LORD had taken note of God's people and given them food." (Ruth 1:6)

Just as bread restores one's soul, so too does pregnancy restore the soul.

And from where had Naomi heard this rumor? The figure of Sarah had appeared to her and said to her: 'My daughter, just as God paid heed to me with a son at the time of my old age and sorrow, as it is written, "The Lord took note of Sarah" (Genesis 21:1), so too God will take note of you. Return to your nation, to the place of your birth, and The One Who Gives Sustenance will take note of you with a son and establish your name.' It is immediately written: "she left the place where she had been living" (Ruth 1:7)

(א) וַֽיהוָ֛ה פָּקַ֥ד אֶת־שָׂרָ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמָ֑ר וַיַּ֧עַשׂ יְהוָ֛ה לְשָׂרָ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֵּֽר׃

(1) The LORD took note of Sarah as God had promised, and the LORD did for Sarah as God had spoken.

(ז) וַתֵּצֵ֗א מִן־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הָיְתָה־שָׁ֔מָּה וּשְׁתֵּ֥י כַלֹּתֶ֖יהָ עִמָּ֑הּ וַתֵּלַ֣כְנָה בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ לָשׁ֖וּב אֶל־אֶ֥רֶץ יְהוּדָֽה׃

(7) Accompanied by her two daughters-in-law, she left the place where she had been living; and they set out on the road back to the land of Judah.

Naomi returns home in response to prophecy offered by our ancestor Sarah! The words of Sarah echo those offered by God to Abraham. "Get up and go!" Yet, instead of asking that she leave home, Naomi is told to return home.

It should be noted, especially at this time of year, that between Abraham's leaving home to start anew in the land of Israel and Naomi's return home to the land of Israel sits almost the entirety of Tanakh.

Growing up, we must at some point leave home, as Abraham did, to find our path forward in the world, to seek out an ezer k'negdo, a partner who supports us. In our journey forward we will build for ourselves a new home where we and the Shechinah can dwell, our holy mishkan. Here we will receive Torah, and, eventually, like Naomi, we'll be called to return home.

How do you understand Naomi's role as the bookend to Abraham's story?

What can we learn from this powerful pair, both leaving and returning, but both always finding a home in the House of Israel?

In this last part of our midrash we need to be very careful with our grammar. As Naomi gives Ruth instructions for how to approach and make a move on Boaz, the family reedemer, the grammar in our text goes back and forth between the 1st and 2nd person. So, the question must be asked: Who is lying down next to Boaz on the threshing floor?

The rabbis have traditionally asked that we read this section in the 2nd person, that is Naomi telling Ruth what to do. But, perhaps our story here is more like that of Rachel and Leah. The rabbis ask, how could Jacob, who was so in love with Rachel, not realize the error of his marriage during his wedding night? Couldn't he tell their voices apart? The answer offered is that the sisters worked, sharing Jacob's secret handshake, and Rachel even hiding under the bed to speak on her sister's behalf!

Here, too, we have two women who share a deep family bond. How does the story change if, like Rachel, Naomi was there on that fateful night?

(ג) וְרָחַ֣צְתְּ ׀ וָסַ֗כְתְּ וְשַׂ֧מְתְּ שמלתך [שִׂמְלֹתַ֛יִךְ] עָלַ֖יִךְ וירדתי [וְיָרַ֣דְתְּ] הַגֹּ֑רֶן אַל־תִּוָּדְעִ֣י לָאִ֔ישׁ עַ֥ד כַּלֹּת֖וֹ לֶאֱכֹ֥ל וְלִשְׁתּֽוֹת׃ (ד) וִיהִ֣י בְשָׁכְב֗וֹ וְיָדַ֙עַתְּ֙ אֶת־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִשְׁכַּב־שָׁ֔ם וּבָ֛את וְגִלִּ֥ית מַרְגְּלֹתָ֖יו ושכבתי [וְשָׁכָ֑בְתְּ] וְהוּא֙ יַגִּ֣יד לָ֔ךְ אֵ֖ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּעַשִֽׂין׃

(3) So bathe, anoint yourself, dress up, and go down to the threshing floor. But do not disclose yourself to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. (4) When he lies down, note the place where he lies down, and go over and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what you are to do.”

דרשוני - א

מדרשי נעמי

וירדתי [וְיָרַ֣דְתְּ] הַגֹּ֑רֶן... וּבָ֛את וְגִלִּ֥ית מַרְגְּלֹתָ֖יו ושכבתי [וְשָׁכָ֑בְתְּ]" (רות ג:ג-ד)

"וירדתי" כתיב, לא "וירדת"; "ושכבתי" כתיב, ולא "ושכבת".

אמרה נעמי: הייתי עמם בגורן, כרחל שהוליכה את אחותה אל יצועי אהובה ונתנה לה סימניה.

"וַיִּתֵּ֨ן יְהוָ֥ה לָ֛הּ הֵרָי֖וֹן וַתֵּ֥לֶד בֵּֽן׃" (רות ד:יג), "לה" נתן היריון, ולי - את הילד שיהיה לי למשיב נפש שנאמר "יֻלַּד־בֵּ֖ן לְנָעֳמִ֑י" (רות ד:יז)

אני ריקה שבתי משדה מואב, ומלאה הביאני ה' לבית ישראל.

Dirshuni - Vol. 1

Midrashim of Naomi by Sarai Elgad

"And I will go down (you go down) to the threshing floor... go over and uncover his feet and I will lie down (you lie down)" (Ruth3:3-4)

"I will go down" is written, not "You go down"; "I will lie down" is written, not "You lie down".

Naomi said: I was with them on the threshing floor, like Rachel who led her sister to her beloved's bed and gave her the her secret signs.

"The Lord let her conceive, and she bore a son" (Ruth 4:13), "Her" God gave her the pregnancy, and me - God gave the child who would restore my soul as it says, "A son is born to Naomi" (Ruth 4:17)

I returned empty from the fields of Moab, and full God has brought me to the House of Israel.

ד"א ויזכור אלהים וגו'. זכר הקב"ה ענותנותה של רחל שמסרה הסימנים לאחותה שנתן לה יעקב שלא קבלה לבייש אחותה:
Another thing, "And God remembered etc." The Holy Blessed One remembered Rachel's modesty who passed on the signs to her sister that Jacob gave her so that her sister should not be embarrassed.

(יג) וַיִּקַּ֨ח בֹּ֤עַז אֶת־רוּת֙ וַתְּהִי־ל֣וֹ לְאִשָּׁ֔ה וַיָּבֹ֖א אֵלֶ֑יהָ וַיִּתֵּ֨ן יְהוָ֥ה לָ֛הּ הֵרָי֖וֹן וַתֵּ֥לֶד בֵּֽן׃

(13) So Boaz married Ruth; she became his wife, and he cohabited with her. The LORD let her conceive, and she bore a son.

(יז) וַתִּקְרֶאנָה֩ ל֨וֹ הַשְּׁכֵנ֥וֹת שֵׁם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר יֻלַּד־בֵּ֖ן לְנָעֳמִ֑י וַתִּקְרֶ֤אנָֽה שְׁמוֹ֙ עוֹבֵ֔ד ה֥וּא אֲבִי־יִשַׁ֖י אֲבִ֥י דָוִֽד׃ (פ)

(17) and the women neighbors gave him a name, saying, “A son is born to Naomi!” They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, father of David.

God said to Abraham, "Go forth!" and, through Sarah, Naomi was told, "Return!"

Both of them came home to the House of Israel.

How are the commands to "Go forth!" and the one to "Return!" part of our process as Jews to find our way Home, to the House of Israel?

(א) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

(1) The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

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