The Path of Despair and the Path of Return
"And it came to pass in the days when the judges judged, that there was a
famine in the land. And a certain man of Beth-lehem in Judah went to
sojourn in the field of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons.
And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and
the name of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Beth-lehem in
Judah. And they came into the field of Moab, and continued there.
And Elimelech Naomi's husband died; and she was left, and her two sons.
And they took them wives of the women of Moab: the name of the one was
Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth; and they dwelt there about ten
years. And Mahlon and Chilion died both of them; and the woman was left
of her two children and of her husband" (Ruth 1, 1-5).
Look how much happened in the life of this family in ten years. Exile,
dislocation, childlessness, bereavement, and loss. Surely, there were
relationships formed, connections forged and characters tested, and yet,
of them we are told practically nothing. How did Naomi merit to gain trust
and love of her daughters-in-law, a rare situation in most families? How
did they grow to appreciate the religion and ideals of Israel? What
brought Elimelech to the field of Moab instead of the traditional refuge
from famine, the Land of Egypt? How did the princes of Bethlehem justify
marrying Moabite women and what did this mean to them in respect of their
faith and religion? What induced Orpah and Ruth to start out with Naomi
into a foreign land? Why did neither of them have children after ten years
of marriage and why didn't Naomi? Many readers feel compelled to recreate
what to them is indispensable background so that they can begin to grasp
the motivations and sensibilities of these mysterious characters. None of
this is in the text. An ordinary writer would have felt constrained to
flesh out the background for us but not the Author. For Him, the outlines
suffice for from the Divine perspective Orpah, Ruth and Naomi only begin
to exist at the point of their return. Everything before that point is
ephemeral and unreal, everything after it is true and reral. The story of
Ruth and the story of Naomi begin when they choose to return to Bethlehem.
Until now they sojourned in the fields of Moab but now they are coming
Rabbinic sources are divided on whether Naomi had a part in the original
decision to go to Moab or whether she had no choice but to follow her
husband. In any case, now she was unencumbered and she alone held the
reins of free choice.
The Midrash says, "the woman was left of her children and her husband"-
she became like the remnants of the meal offering (Ruth Rabbah 2,10). A
small part of the meal offering is taken off and burned on the altar and
the rest is cedremoniously eaten. This pithy saying has attracted many
expositions. Let us also offer an interpretation that might, perhaps,
provide give us some light.
Meal offerings are brought to expiate bitterness and anger (Netsiv to Lev.
2,1), as is evident from Samuel I, 26, " And Saul knew David's voice, and
said: 'Is this thy voice, my son David?' And David said: 'It is my voice,
my lord, O king.' And he said: 'Wherefore doth my lord pursue after his
servant? for what have I done? or what evil is in my hand? Now therefore,
I pray thee, let my lord the king hear the words of his servant. If it be
HaShem that hath stirred thee up against me, let Him accept a meal
The word that is used to describe Naomi's bereavement is also significant
for in Hebrew there are two synonyms that mean "left over", NTR and NSHR.
The first signifies that which is left over by chance, by accident,
without intent, while the second is used for that which is left to remain
on purpose(See Netsiv to Ex. 10, 19). It is the second form that is used
Naomi alone was left but she was left on purpose. She was left so that she
may choose. Her suffering came from God and therefore it possessed a
measure of holinessand of sacrificial character. Her family was consumed
but she remained. She was a survivor of the tragic events that claimed
all that she had. She had moved far away from her land and from her people
and now her God was pushing her farther away and showing her "the face of
anger". At such times, the choice is stark - give back anger and distance
farther from God or to come home, that is to justify His actions and, in
some obscure way, a springboard back to HIm. There is nothing in between.
The two polarities of feeling, anger versus contrition, that are available
to survivors of great tragedies are expressed in the following verses:
He is unto me as a bear lying in wait, as a lion in secret places.
He hath turned aside my ways, and pulled me in pieces; He hath made me
He hath bent His bow, and set me as a mark for the arrow.
He hath caused the arrows of His quiver to enter into my reins.
I am become a derision to all my people, and their song all the day.
He hath filled me with bitterness, He hath sated me with wormwood.
He hath also broken my teeth with gravel stones, He hath made me to wallow
And my soul is removed far off from peace, I forgot prosperity.
And I said: 'My strength is perished, and mine expectation from HaShem
This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.
Surely HaShem'S mercies are not consumed, surely His compassions fail not.
They are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness.
'The HaShem is my portion', saith my soul; 'Therefore will I hope in Him.'
HaShem is good unto them that wait for Him, to the soul that seeketh Him.
It is good that a man should quietly wait for the salvation of HaShem.
It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.
Let him sit alone and keep silence, because He hath laid it upon him.
Let him put his mouth in the dust, if so be there may be hope.
Let him give his cheek to him that smiteth him let him be filled full with
For the L-rd will not cast off for ever.
For though He cause grief, yet will He have compassion according to the
multitude of His mercies.
For He doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.
To crush under foot all the prisoners of the earth,
To turn aside the right of a man before the face of the Most High,
To subvert a man in his cause, the L-rd approveth not.
Who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass, when the L-rd commandeth it
Out of the mouth of the Most High proceedeth not evil and good?
Wherefore doth a living man complain, a strong man because of his sins?
Let us search and try our ways, and return to HaShem.
Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto G-d in the heavens.
Events are great teachers, sent by the greatest Teacher, and He gives out
trials exactly according to one's capacity to bear. When things are at
most bleakest, the choices are also starkest. One can react with anger or
denial or accept responsibility for being the active agent of one's own
pain and them as a springboard back to God. Often people are broken by
suffering for there is no greater rejection than to be rejected by God and
only exceptional people can distinguish between lessons and rejection.
The highest courage is to absorb the lessons, qua lessons; the easiest
course is to dissolve into blaming and victimization. The hardest thing is
to acknowledge God's judgment, to surmount anger and bitterness, to trust
when there seems to exist no more hope. The easy way out is to deny His
culpability or knowledge. The brave thing is to turn to repentance despite
the bitterness and anger. The cowardly thing is to build philosophies that
take Him out of the picture and explain away suffering as random and
accidentaland therefore meaningless events. Naomi certainly knew what she
felt and experienced but she also know from where it came.
She said unto them: 'Call me not Naomi, call me Marah; for the Almighty
hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and HaShem hath brought
me back HOME empty; why call ye me Naomi, seeing HaShem hath testified
against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me? (Ruth 1, 20-21)'
She knew exactly who was responsible for her suffering but she went home
anyway. In the Bible, such trust is always rewarded.
The extent of Naomi's anguish is difficult to imagine. Naomi was empty,
bereft of her husband and her sons, she had no possession and no hope,
empty, completely empty. Her being longed to be filled.
Ruth understood that and so did Boaz.
And he said: 'Bring the mantle that is upon thee, and hold it'; and she
held it; and he measured six measures of barley, and laid it on her; and
he went into the city. And when she came to her mother-in-law, she
said: 'Who art thou, my daughter?' And she told her all that the man had
done to her. And she said: 'These six measures of barley gave he me; for
he said to me: Go not empty unto thy mother-in-law (Ruth 3, 15-17).'
Naomi had a hard road to walk, so God sent her Ruth to walk it with her.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and Torah.org.