The story of Ruth is set in the time in which judges led the people of Israel, a period known for lack of order, government, and cohesiveness among the tribes ofIsrael. The story is set in the midst of the additional crisis of a famine. Against this backdrop we meet Elimelekh and his sons, Makhlon and Kilyon, a well-to-do family from Bethlehem in Judah, who moved to Moab in trans-Jordan. There they settle, the sons marry Moabite women, and subsequently all three men die. They leave behind three women, all of whom seem to be minor characters in the story of these men.
Reading carefully between the lines and utilizing understanding of human nature, we see great complexities in this story; a story of petty and ordinary folks interwoven with the lives of a few extraordinary, kind individuals. So extraordinary were they that the kingship, and ultimately the Messiah, would come from their offspring.
Famine caused the family to leave their community in Bethlehem(translated literally the name of the city means ‘the house of bread/food…’). Reading about their comfortable resettlement in Moab, we become suspicious. Throughout human history people have been forced from their homes due to lack of sustenance. Mass migrations due to famine and war have pushed entire populations into refugee camps, where human beings subsist as shadows at the edges of society. But the story of Elimelekh and his family does not fit into this paradigm. Upon her return to Canaan, Naomi declares, “I left full” (Ruth 1:21), hardly a depiction of a person fleeing in a state of starvation. Indeed, upon their arrival in Moab, the sons marry local women. At a time when marriages were arranged to form ties between families, one has to ask what a supposedly poor refugee could offer to entice a local family to allow him to marry their daughter; unless of course, the family of Elimelekh were not poor refugees but a well-off family that had simply relocated.
Elimelekh was criticized harshly for leaving the land of Israe lby rabbis who, centuries later, faced similar dilemmas. Periods of hardship in Israelled the rabbis to formulate guidelines as to when a person may leave the landof Israel due to economic difficulties and famine (Source 1). The main criterion is the person’s ability to buy food. The rabbis believed that Elimelekh was not suffering of hunger. He left with assets, not destitute due to high market prices. He left because other people in his community were suffering from hunger and were unable to afford the grain in the market. He left so that they could not turn to him with requests for help. Elimelekh was able to provide his family with food; he did not wish to share with those knocking on his door in desperation.
The rabbis view Elimelekh’s death and the deaths of his sons as a punishment for his miserly behavior. However, it is the widowed and bereaved Naomi who is left to cope with her loss. She considered the events as God’s response to her family’s actions. Naomi’s return toBethlehemis colored by her view. She fully accepts the social shame that she would face upon her return and acknowledges the drastic change in her economic status that will be reflected in a matching drop in her social standing.
In contrast with the disloyalty that Elimelekh and his sons displayed by abandoning their community in a time of need, Naomi found that she had acquired two daughters who are the image of loyalty. Ironically, this loyalty complicated matters for Naomi. The Israelites traditionally had an especially negative attitude towards Moabites and Ammonites (Source 2). Bringing home a Moabite daughter-in-law would hardly have bolstered Naomi’s social standing.
Naomi’s attempts to convince her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, to return to their land and nation were only partially successful. The text does not explicitly tell the reader that Orpah returned home, it delicately says that she kissed Naomi “while Ruth cleaved to her” (Ruth 1:14). Orpah’s behavior is not frowned upon. It made no sense for her to go to a land that did not want her with a mother-in-law who begged her not to follow her. So what about Ruth? We believe Naomi when she says that Ruth and Orpah should turn around. It would be better for them; it would be easier for her to face her hometown without having to explain the Moabite woman who returned with her (Source 3). On the other hand, being lonely and poor, “empty” – as Naomi defines herself, makes for a very difficult old age. Ruth’s loyalty went beyond all that could be expected of her. She sealed the matter by an oath to share Naomi’s nation, God, and fate. As people in Biblical times knew, an oath could not be broken without dire consequences. Now they will face the wagging tongues of Bethlehem together.
The people of Bethlehem are not criticized any more than we would criticize any ordinary, curious, and a bit thoughtless group of people. Against the backdrop of this ordinary town we meet Boaz, a rich landowner in the town with extraordinary views. Upon inquiring about “the new girl” collecting in his field (for more on the commandment to leave grain for the poor, see source 4), he finds out from his work manager that “she is a Moabite girl, the one that returned with Naomi.” (Ruth 2:6) The manager (who seems to be a good representative of the people of the town) identifies her first and foremost as a foreigner. However, Boaz sees something else; what she had done for her mother-in-law afterthe death of the man that linked them, and all she gave up to join a nation that was foreign to her (notice that his words in Ruth 2:11 recall the words of God to Abraham in Gen. 12:1).
The reader of a short story of this nature might at this point expect, along with Ruth herself, a happy ending. That ending seems long in coming. The harvest season draws to an end, and Ruth’s hopes of ever living better than her current hand-to-mouth situation dims. Now it is Naomi’s turn to intervene. She is the one who decides to push Boaz towards more substantial assistance. Ruth deserves more than handouts, she should have a home, as Naomi tells her “my daughter, I shall seek for you a place of rest that will be good for you” (Ruth 3:1). Ruth may have hesitated to carry out the plan, and Boaz may have used some “creative” ways to get Ruth married (to him), but by the end of chapter 4 we can finally put down the book with the satisfaction that the story has come to its proper conclusion. Ruth, Boaz and Naomi live happily ever after, rewarded with offspring including a great grandchild that will become known as King David.
However, this is a biblical book, and as such we might wonder why the book of Ruth was canonized. As Rabbi Ze’ira asks in Midrash on Ruth (source 5) it does not contain any legal value, it does not elucidate any other issues, why include it? He answers that Ruth was canonized, “To teach you how great is the reward of those who grant loving kindness (hesed).” It does not contain any villains, the people of Bethlehem are ordinary people, the family of Elimelekh is selfish, but no more than most. Orpah only did as she was begged to do. Against all that gray and ordinary human scenery there are three extraordinary individuals; Naomi, Ruth and Boaz who rose above what was commonly expected from human beings; they are people of hesed (loving kindness). It is not coincidental that on the day that the Jewish tradition considers to be the day we received the Torah, the Law, the rabbis included a reading that stresses hesed– loving kindness that goes beyond the letter of the law.
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I would like to thank the many students and alumni of the Conservative Yeshiva with whom I have had the pleasure of studying the story of Ruth over the years. Their ideas, insights and life experiences have enhanced my already great love for this beautiful story.