Orpah is a mystery. Who is this young woman who initially accompanies Naomi but then leaves her and returns to Moab. She appears in front of our eyes together with Ruth but quickly fades into obscurity. What does she represent and what does her figure mean to us?
It is tempting to see Orpah as the Everywoman, a just regular gal, who like so many of us, is attracted by the spiritual but never seems to fully commit to it. Orpah would love to be the heroine of the book of Orpah but she simply cannot muster the courage to sacrifice her ease and her everyday comforts on the altar of the Big Idea. Her sin is a sin of omission, of cowardice, of lack of vision. She is a good person who means to do well but just isn’t cut out for self-sacrifice and mighty deeds. We regret her lack of vision but we can understand Orpah, we can but feel sorry for her and we and feel sympathy and a sense of recognition for the choices that she has made.
Cynthia Ozick, a noted observant Jewish American writer wrote an insightful essay on Ruth. Here as she writes about Orpah is how she expresses this very thought:
“Her prototype abounds. She has fine impulses but she is not an iconoclast. She can push against convention to a generous degree, but it is out of generosity of her temperament, not out of some large metaphysical idea… She is certainly not a philosopher, but neither is she after ten years with Naomi, an ordinary Moabite. Not that she has altogether absorbed the Hebrew vision… she is somewhere in between. In this we may suppose her to be one of us: a modern, no longer a full fledged member of the pagan world, but always with one foot warming in the seductive bath of those colorful, comfortable, often beautiful old lies (they can console, but because they are lies they can also hurt and kill); not yet given over to the Covenant and its determination to train us away from lies, however, warm, colorful, beautiful and consoling lies… So Orpah goes home; or more to the point, she goes nowhere. She is never to be blamed for it. If she is not extraordinary, she is also normal… it is not the fault of the normal that it does not or cannot aspire to the extraordinary. What Orpah gains by staying home with her own people is what she always deserved: family happiness. She is young and fertile; soon she will marry a Moabite husband and have a Moabite child.
“What Orpah loses is three thousand years of history. Israel continues; Moab has not. Still for Oprah…(it) may not be a loss at all. Orpah has her husband, her cradle, her little time. She once loved her oddly foreign other-in-law. And why shouldn’t open-hearted Orpah, in her little time, also love her Moabite mother-in-law, who is like her own mother, and who will also call her ‘daughter’…. Normality is not visionary. Normality’s appetite stops at satisfaction” (Ruth, in Reading Ruth…: ed .J. Kates and G.Twersy-Rimer, Ballantine, 1994).
A fine interpretation, beautifully expressed… but so not in the spirit of the truth of the Sages. That spiritual cowardice is normal, that self- sacrifice is not to be demanded of us common folk, that we cannot judge others, that all paths are essentially equal, although some may bring better results than others, is so in spirit of our times, so post-modern, so imbued with moral relativism and belief in man’s impotence against his or her own nature, such distrust of the power of man’s finest asset – it denies the power of free choice.
A serious exegetical deficiency of this approach is that it gives short shrift to the character of Orpah as foil and counterpart of Ruth. If Ruth’s choices were momentous, so must Orpah’s choices also have been.
Far from being a sympathetic character with understandable foibles and weaknesses, the Sages’ Oprah undergoes a profound spiritual rout that immediately led her and her descendants deep into the side of impurity. That very night she fell, very, very far.
“The night that Orpah parted from her mother-in-law she was invaded by a hundred men from a hundred nations. R. Tanchum said: also by one dog, as it says,”the Pelishti (Goliath) said to David, Am I a dog?” (Ruth Rabbah 2:20). This becomes clearer after we learn that Oprah was the progenitor of Goliath who faced Ruth’s descendant David on the field of battle (ibid).
We will take up these comments of the Sages in the next class, dog and all. The first principle in interpreting their ancient wisdom is that the more striking and the more outrageous the metaphor, the greater the profundity that lies under its surface. It suffices to point out for now that they clearly viewed the key to interpretation of this book in that it is about Redemption. As we will see as we go along, the Sages viewed this separation of Orpah and Ruth as representing the point of separation of Good and Evil as a prelude to Redemption. Kabbala teaches that in our world, good and evil, darkness and light, are inextricably intermixed. The task of man leading to redemption is to separate them, to consign each one to tos rightful place. On the road to Bethlehem, Naomi called both Orpah and Ruth,”my daughters”. This means that Orpah also could have been the mother of David. Once Orpah turned her back on the possibility of standing in direct line to the Messiah, she did not simply go back to her hearth and her normal, everyday existence in a little house in Moab. She, consciously or not, fell into the deepest evil, and her descendents were now found among those who “reviled the camp of the Living God”. The lesson to us everyday folk is that, yes, there is a spiritual universe that surrounds us on all sides, there are momentous choices, our decisions matter, and at times they are of immense import to us, our descendents and the entire world. God fashions History out of human choices.
It used to be that man perceived himself very small and God immense, filling all space and allowing man no corner for self-expression. Later man felt himself so large and important as to fill the entire universe and he restricted God to a small and useful role within man’s world. We, in our own time and place, see ourselves as taking up a tiny part of a meaningless and essentially empty universe, and God, we are not even entirely sure where He resides. We can understand and justify anything becasue we don’t value anything. The episode on the road to Bethlehem teaches the contrary- this world of choices that Hashem graciously created and granted into our power, this world is our world – to redeem or to pollute, and in this holy work of History, He is our Partner.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and Torah.org.