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Shavuot: Does the Book of Ruth Matter?
Video 5 of 5
The Book of Ruth tells us that Elimelech left the land of Israel for the fields of Moab in times of famine. The midrash fills out the picture telling us that Elimelech was a great man in his generation; he was wealthy and people looked to him for help, for food, during times of famine. But he fled! He left the country with his children and with his wife, abandoning people in their times of trouble. If the story we’ve been hearing ever ten generations is the story of building kindness, of brothers taking care of brothers, here, brothers are not taking care of brothers; they are abandoning them. Elimelech leaves his countrymen, the kindness that we would expect to reach its apex ten generations later is dying. This dying of kindness begins to reflect itself in physical death.
Elimelech has two children, Machlon and Kilyon. We talked about their strange names; Machlon – Sickness, Kilyon – Destruction. These two children will eventually die, as their names seem to suggest. But before do, they engaged in an act that is also a betrayal of kindness. They spring into action in the wake of the tragedy of the death of Elimelech and they take wives, seemingly just as Abram and Nahor did, except, the meaning of their taking wives is the exact opposite of Abram’s and Nahor’s meaning. In taking wives, who are they marrying? They are marrying Moabites women. Their children will no longer be part of the children of the people of Israel, they are destroying the legacy of their father; not even passively like Cain did, but actively by taking the steps to destroy it. The ten generations cycle is in shambles. Externally, everything is the same.
There is three men, there is a tragedy, one dies, the two remaining spring into action, they take wives; externally, everything is the same, but internally, it’s all the reverse. The soul of this story is the destruction of kindness within a family. Soon, Machlon and Kilyon themselves die. And now, the question that faces all of the survivors is, “Will this be all? Will there be no legacy for Elimelech and Machlon and Kilyon who’ve died in the fields of Moab without surviving children?” This point is the lowest of the low; it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Ever ten generations, things were getting better. Cain was apathetic. Ten generations later, Shem and Japheth acted; they tried to help. Ten generations after that, Abram and Nahor helped brothers, but ten generations later it’s a disaster; Elimelech abandons the needs of his countrymen, and his children abandoned his needs, and a family of leaders is headed for oblivion. Let’s continue with the story.
Naomi, the widow of Elimelech, has a heart-to-heart talk with her daughters-in-law. She tells them that if they had any thought of trying to perform some sort of Yibum like act, trying somehow to preserve the legacy of their husbands, by marrying a brother from the family, they can put that thought to rest; there is no brother for Machlon and Kilyon. Naomi said, “I don’t have any other children, there is no other children that you can marry. Even if I have children now, by the time they got old enough, you would be too old to marry them. Give up the quest, it’s not going to happen.” Orpah gives up. Ruth embarks on the unlikely quest, just like Abram did before.
One son Abram, along with his father Terah, leaving another son, another brother Nahor behind, heads off to Canaan. That quest for Canaan is emblematic, as we suggested before, of another inner quest, a quest to perpetuate the legacy of his dead brother Haran. That quest seems impossible. Sarai can’t have children, there is only the dimness of hopes of making that quest come alive as they head off to Canaan. And now, centuries later in the Book of Ruth, the same thing is happening, except that the lead actors are females instead of males. Tragedy strikes, and then, there is a mother-in-law, Naomi, left with two daughter in laws; Ruth and Orpah. One of them, Orpah, stays behind. Ruth, travels with her mother-in-law on a quest again to Canaan. But that quest is also emblematic of another quest; a quest to keep the dead legacy of her husband Machlon alive. There is only the dimness of chances of making that happen, because there is no children in the picture, Naomi does not have other children that Ruth could marry. What will happen to that quest? It’s the story of Abram and Terah one more time again.
And yes, do you remember how in the Abram story when they get stuck in Charan, vayeshvu sham – “and they settled there”, the shadow of the tower hang over the story of Abram. There is a vayeshvu sham in the story of Machlon and Kilyon too. When these people get stuck in Moab, they begin as sojourners. They come legur- “to stay a while”, but they ended up staying a long while; vayeshvu sham – “they end up settling there”. The echoes of the tower hovers over the story too.
What is the tower about? It’s about caring about your own private legacy, disregarding the legacy of those who loved you, of those who you love; that’s the story of Machlon and Kilyon too. And just as the tower crumbled, Machlon and Kilyon have withered away was well. The only hope for the preservation of this family legacy, lies with someone from outside the family, indeed, it was someone from outside the nation; it lies with Ruth, the woman who embarks on this impossible quest.
Ruth comes back with her mother in law to the land of Israel, and there, almost miraculously, she ends up collecting grains in the fields of someone who happens to be a relative of her dead husband Machlon; it is name is Boaz. Later on, Boaz will speak of Elimelech, Machlon’s father as achinu Elimelech – “our brother Elimelech”. They’re cousins, children of brothers; it’s the theme of brothers once more. The possibility of Yibum looms.
Boaz, the owner of the field, the relative, begins to understand who Ruth is. He is impressed with her, impressed with her kindness, with her loyalty to her mother-in-law, and to her dead husband. He treats her nicely, he blesses her. Huged hugad li, he said – “ It was told to me everything you’ve done to your mother in law after your husband died; how you left your father and your mother behind, how you came to a nation you didn’t know yesterday or the day before. Let God rewards you for your action”, he says, “the God of Israel”, – “let Him shelter you beneath his wings.” It’s a nice poetic blessing; but it doesn’t do anything for Ruth. He is not prepared to marry her; to carry on the name of Machlon. Ruth is from Moab, and whatever question many surround the permissibility of marrying her.
Machlon and Kilyon and Elimelch didn’t seem to be terribly popular in Bet Lehem. They were the ones who left in times of trouble. Boaz recognizes the kindness of Ruth, but does not act on his own to further the shame, the name, the legacy of these deceased cousins of his, who left their people in times of trouble. Eventually, Ruth confronts him, and when she does, she brings Boaz’s own words back to haunt him. She comes to him in the middle of the night and makes her case to him. “Marry me”, she says, “it’s not just about me, it is about your brother; my dead husband.”
Anochi Rut amatecha, she tells him, “I am Ruth your maidservant. Ufarasta chenafecha al-amatcha– “Spread your wings over your maidservant”, “ki goel atah – “because you are a redeemer.” “Spread your wings over me”, we’ve heard that language before. Boaz had used that kind of metaphor, ‘that God shelters you beneath his wings’. “You told me before that you thought I was worthy of having God spread his wings over me. You think that God should spread his wings over me, then maybe you should too. It’s not enough to wish that God act with kindness, you must act with kindness too. You can allow this family of Elimelech, Machlon and Kilyon, to have some continuity; not to meet its final end.” Ruth, from outside the family, outside the nation, demands kindness from within it. And Boaz responds. Boaz implicitly accepts her demand and sends her back to her mother in law with a strange sign; a cloth, filled with six seeds of barley.
Havi hamitpachat asher-alaich he says – “bring me that cloth that you are wearing,” he says, v’echazi bah – “grab hold of it; and she garbs hold of it, and he puts six barley seed in it.” Vayaset aleiha – “and he placed it on her.” What a strange word, vayaset aleiha. The word is too strong, it doesn’t means, “he placed it upon her”, it means, “He established it upon her”. “He established it upon her”? We’ve heard that word before; it’s Shet. It’s the very first Yibum child in the history of the Torah. Then what’s Boaz doing? He is telling her to grab the cloth, the cloth that he is giving her, to walk back towards her mother-in-law. We’ve heard that before too; Shem and Japheth grabbing a cloth and walking towards their parent. And now it’s happening one more time. He will give her a cloth, a cloth with seeds in it to walk back towards her parent. This time, the cloth is not just to help father; the cloth has seeds. There is a message here. There will be the birth of new life, a legacy will be carried on; there will be a child. The child of Boaz and Ruth is Obed. Obed gives birth to Yishai, and Yishai gives birth to David; this is the birth of Kings within the Jewish people.
This story of Ruth is a beautiful story, a story of how a woman from outside of the family helped bring kindness, a kind of redemption, to the family of Elimelech, and through that, kings came to the people of Israel. But there is another level of redemption going on in this story too, a more subtle level; because where does Ruth come from? She comes from Moab. But where does Moab comes from? Moab the nation came from Moab the man. Moab the man, was a child of Lot, and Lot was a child of Haran; Abram’s dead brother. Yes, it all finally comes full circle now. Centuries before, Abram had acted selflessly to perpetuate the name of his dead brother, Haran. And now, Haran’s child would do the same for Abram’s family when it found itself in crisis. Centuries later, when kindness had died within Abram’s family, within the line that was inextricably moving towards kingship, when there was no more hope, when Elimelech family had reached a dead end, someone, a child of Haran, would not give up, would selflessly dedicate herself to the needs of Abram’s family. Ruth, would breathe new life back into that family; Haran’s child would save Abram’s children to bring about kingship within Abram’s people.
In the end, this is the culmination of a story, a story that begins with Cain and Abel, progresses to Shem and Japheth, continues with the story of Abram, and culminates with kingship for the nation of Abram. And in this culminating moment, the family of Terah is finally complete. It’s not really true that the father of the Jewish people is Abram, the father of the Jewish people is Terah; the whole family are the ancestors of the Jewish people. The fathers of the Jewish people, Issac and Jacob, they come from Abram. But where did the mothers come from? They come from Nahor. Nahor, the other brother who acted selflessly to keep Haran’s name alive. He married Milcah, their child is Bethuel, Bethual’s child is Rebecca, whose grandchildren are Rachel and Leah. Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, these are the mothers of the Jewish people; they all come from Nahor. And finally, centuries later, Haran’s child Ruth from Moab, enters the family. And when all three strands of the family have come together, when the kindness of two great men, Abram and Nahor, looking out for their brother, is repaid by the brother for whom they looked after, when each has cared and sacrificed to build the name of the other, it is then that kings can come into this people.
The story of Ruth does have a plot, it’s not just about a day in the life of Bet Lehem; it’s about a quest, Ruth’s quest to perpetuate a name. At the end of the day, the holiday of Shavout tells us about our mission statement. On this holiday, we read the Ten Commandment, an embodiment of this mission statement in the realm of law. But we also read the Book of Ruth, an embodiment of the mission statement not in law, but in a story. The mission tells us one thing for sure; if all we do as Jews is reassure ourselves about how special we are, about how much we think God loves us, we would have really just become later day tower builders. Our mission demands a selflessness, a focus on perpetuating the names of others whether God or people, even at the expense, if necessary, of our own legacy. It is why Abraham is mattered, it’s why Ruth mattered, and it’s why each one of us in our own lives can still matter today.
Hey, it’s Rabbi David Forhman here again. If you enjoyed this last video, please consider partnering with us in helping to bring these videos around the world. You can do that by subscribing to Aleph Beta and joining our effort.
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