The book of Ruth opens with a presentation of several characters. Such
early setting out of the "players" is quite unusual in Biblical writing.
Much more common is the pattern in which a single character is introduced,
his fathers and forefathers are fully described, and his story then
related. The focus is usually on one person and not on the group. It
follows, therefore, that these characters must be important in setting the
theme of the book.
Now it is true that Machlon, Kilyon, and Elimelech pass quickly from the
scene and Orpah follows them soon thereafter. Yet, they throw a shadow
over the entire story. As we explained in the introduction, the
restoration of Elimelech's seed by Boaz through Levirite marriage to Ruth,
constitutes the first redemptive cycle of the book; in this lies the
importance of early introduction of Ruth's former husband, brother-in-law
and their father.
Who was Elimelech? The text does not really tell us but the Sages do, and
so, we will engage in 'reverse engineering', trying to grasp their view of
this complex personality and then to appreciate the antecedents of their
interpretation. We will not focus overmuch on the details as much as on
the concepts. We must be aware that they taught in "riddles and parables
(Proverbs 1, 2)" and that our task is extract and restate their message in
the conceptual language that we use today.
There is a paucity of clues but the first one is the Elimelech's name
itself. We assume that names of Biblical characters are not accidental but
reflect their essense or memorialize pivotal events of their lives. This
makes perfect sense when we consider that Biblical individuals were called
by several different names over their lifetimes and that names were given
in remembrance of major events. There were no state registries or social
security numbers and names served a much more fluid purpose than they do
For example: "And he called his name Noach, meaning to say, "This one will
give us comfort (e-noach-meinu) (Genesis 5, 29)". Here the name reflects
the man's essence."The name of one was Peleg, for in his days, the entire
world became divided (ni-peleg-a) (Geneis 10,25)" This name was was given
for Dispersion (after the Tower of Babel) that occurred during Peleg's
"The ancestors, since they knew their genealogies, would derive names from
events. We, who are not certain of our genealogies, derive names from our
forefathers. Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel said: The ancestors who used the
power of Divine Inspiration drew names out of (future) events; we who do
not have access to Divine Inspiration, draw names from our forefathers
(Genesis Rabbah 37,7)."
What does the name Elimelech mean? Ordinarily it would be translated
as, " My God is King". The Sages, however, read it with a slight
difference in pronunciation as "Elai Melech" - "For he said: "Kingship is
due to me (Ruth Rabba 2,5)". What could have led them to this
interpretation? It seems that they are pointing out a certain "disconnect"
between the name and the behavior. Would man who truly believes that His
God is King abandon his people at the time of famine? In addition, why
would a private individual carry a name that signifies royalty. We know of
Abimelech, son of the leader Gideon and Abimelech, the King of Gerar. The
name of Achimelech, the priest who gave aid to David at Nob, reflects his
elevated stature (Leviticus Rabbah 1,3) and Malchizedek was the King of
Salem (Malkiel in Numbers 25, 24 deserves a separate discussion). When
kings ruled, "My God is King", denoted not only spiritual but also
political power. "And Gideon said to them: I shall not rule over you and
my son shall not rule over you, Hashem shall rule over you (Judges 8,
The second clue that this name is meant to be interpreted is how the verse
presents it. It purposefully draws our attention to it, for it first tells
us that "a man went out" and then tells us that "the name of the man was
Elimelech". The usual pattern is the reverse; first, we are told a man's
name and familial antecedents and only then are his actions described.
There is literally a gap between the man and what he called himself.
Finally, the description of Elimelech departure is frugal and bereft of
detail. This suggests that the Narrator was not happy with him, for when
God approves of a journey, it, the participants, their families, and even
their livestock are described in loving detail (See Ezra 2, 66-67, after
commentary Nachalat Yosef).
The resolution to these irregularities is primarily exegetical. It must
be, the Sages reasoned, that Elimelech misread his destiny. He thought
that he would be King. He was right in that Kingship was destined to come
from his progeny; yet he was also grievously wrong for he himself was not
fitting to become king of Israel. Instead, it was God who demonstrated His
sovereignty by bringing about the chain of events that culminated in the
establishment of monarchy in Israel.
Apparently Elimelech abandoned his people because they scorned their
leaders. They rejected him as they rejected others. He was right, but, was
there, perhaps, a personal element in his reaction?
"The man's name was Elimelech. How did Elimelech know that strict justice
was (loose) in the world? When he saw that his generation scorned great
men, he said, "Surely I shall go from here so that I will not be caught
among them" (Zohar Chodosh 77a).
Elimelech was one of the great men and authorities in Israel. When the
years of famine came he said, "Now all of them will come to my door post,
each one with his begging cup in his hand. He arose and fled from them
(Ruth Rabbah 1, 4)." Apparently he was willing to help only if he wears
the mantly of authority.
Is this the behavior of a leader who loves and cares for his people, even
if they do not fully deserve his respect?
Ezekiel (10, 3) castigates the leaders of Israel as being "foxes in the
ruins". The Midrash explains:
"What does a fox watch out for in the ruins? When it sees people coming,
it immediately runs away. You, leaders, did not stand among the ruins like
Moses did. What was Moses like? Like a faithful shepherd whose corral-
fence fell as darkness approached. He stood and surrounded it with rebuilt
walls from three directions. A space remained that he did not manage to
rebuild. He stood in the opening and blocked it with his body. A lion
approached and he fought off the lion. A wolf approached and he fought the
wolf. You, leaders, did not stand at the opening like Moses. Had you done
so, you would have been able to even withstand God's anger (Petichta Ruth
Elimelech appears to have been a man of faith who did not or could not be
fully faithful. He was a leader who possessed the requisite qualities,
except for that of deep love and concern for his flock and of disregard of
his own worthiness and rights. Perhaps he was not even fully aware of this
failing but God was.
Can one dismiss the sincerity of a man of faith who fails to always live
up to his convictions? Can one, on the other hand, forgive and excuse his
deficiencies and the damage that they bring about?
Humans cannot see beyond these two alternatives but God has another
choice. He deals out Justice, rejecting the bad and rewarding the good.
Elimelech was severely punished for his failings but the good within him
was preserved and rewarded and he became the progenitor of the Royal line.