What does it mean to commit to someone or something? What do you feel committed or loyal to, and when do you feel it most strongly?
The theme of commitment runs throughout the book of Ruth. Ruth Rabbah elevates it even when it seems absent, and widens the scope of that commitment in some cases.
In the very first chapter of the book of Ruth, we meet Orpah, Naomi’s second daughter-in-law (Ruth being the first). The book of Ruth tells us that she had wanted to accompany Naomi back to Israel, but that she respected Naomi’s request to remain behind. After weeping together, Orpah bids Naomi farewell, but Ruth stays by Naomi’s side. At first glance, how committed do you think Orpah and Ruth are to Naomi? One voice in Ruth Rabbah suggests an answer hinted by their names:
According to this midrash, the names Orpah and Ruth are reflective of their respective loyalties to their mother-in-law: one turned away, one looked towards and followed. [Orpah and Ruth have other meanings, too! Highlight or double-click their names in Hebrew to see other translations of their names in the resource panel. Do the meanings of their names show in their actions?]
Others in Ruth Rabbah, however, want the reader to know that despite leaving Naomi, Orpah’s pain was real, and commitment to her mother-in-law was strong.
To see other opinions about Orpah in Ruth Rabbah, check out Source 2
According to this midrash, Orpah was rewarded because she escorted Naomi on her way. Just as welcoming guests is a mitzvah, so too is accompanying and giving a proper send-off for those who might be in a vulnerable state.
Where Orpah’s loyalty isn’t perfectly clear from the book of Ruth, Ruth’s commitment to her mother-in-law is more evident.
An initial reading might suggest that Ruth is committing primarily to her mother-in-law. However, the rabbis of the midrash read Ruth as committing not only to Naomi, but to the Jewish people. The midrash does this by turning what seems to be Ruth’s monologue into a dialogue between Ruth and Naomi.
This text shifts the object of commitment from Naomi to the Jewish people. When Ruth says, “Where you lodge, I will lodge,” for example, Ruth Rabbah interprets this to mean that her house will be similarly adorned with a mezuzah, not that she will literally lodge with her. When she says, “Your God shall be my God,” she is committing to performing commandments (mitzvot) independent of Naomi. Her decision to become a part of Naomi’s family and nation will shape her life going forward.
Ruth Rabbah demonstrates that commitment is a choice. Orpah chooses to accompany Naomi to the extent that she did before turning back, and Ruth chooses to follow Naomi and throw her lot in with the Jewish people. Neither of them had to support Naomi in the ways they did.
It also reminds us that commitment can materialize in various ways: modified lifestyle, change in residence, new behaviors, a shared fate, or even a new religion - despite the fact that the alternative may be easier.
It’s fitting, then, that we read from the book of Ruth on Shavuot, a day on which the Jewish people established their own commitment to God and to each other by accepting the Torah. There is a question about the nature of this acceptance - was it initially by choice or coercion? - but ultimately, the rabbis understand the Jews to have accepted this commitment with enthusiasm and open arms.
Learning from Ruth, what in your life do you feel so committed to that you are willing to make sacrifices for it? And, learning from Orpah, what are the limits of those commitments and when do you need to draw clear boundaries?