English translation by Asaf Bartov
Fields of wheat spread from one horizon to the other around my home in western Judea. As in the days of yore, the wheat turns green, then yellow, and come harvest time, is harvested into sheaves and piled up in heaps, repeating in a rhythm set by nature. Because now, as ever, the most important human crop can only be sustained with rain.
The holiday of Shavuot is coming, and it is the harvest festival. Hebrew language revival pioneer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda commented of it: “Of the three pilgrimage festivals in Judaism, Shavuot is the most attached to the Land of Israel and Jewish life in it. It is a nature festival and a spiritual festival both.” And yet it is on this holiday that Jews recall in synagogues a story of drought years, and of a woman from a nation forbidden by the Torah from mingling with the Israelites. These are two paradoxes, and not the only ones, in a story of great calamity leading to psychological healing and salvation. Seven times we hear the voice of Ruth the Moabite in the four chapters of this short, beautiful story, and all of them demonstrate a valuable, intuitive wisdom in restoring hope even where it appears to have been lost for good.
“Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled,” narrates the Second Temple period author of the book of Ruth, “that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehemjudah went to sojourn in the country 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 Bethlehemjudah.”The sons married Moabite women. The author, who openly alludes to several other books in the Bible, is clearly aware of the strict taboo on such intermarriage, and of its rationale: “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord. An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord for ever” (Deuteronomy, 23:2-3) Ammon and Moab are descended from Lot, born of incestuous intercourse with Lot’s two daughters. They are bastard nations, and therefore forbidden for the Israelites to marry.
But the story is not concerned with Elimelech, who died a few years after migrating to Moab, nor with his sons. “And Mahlon and Chilion died also both of them; and the woman was left of her two sons and her husband.” In addition to the hardships of hunger back in the homeland, of migration, and of widowhood, she is now faced with the death of her two sons, who were clearly her only children, and who had not had children of their own. Thus the story begins with a life ruined beyond hope. Unlike the story of Job, there is not much description of emotion in Naomi’s story.Her misfortunes are narrated, but with only a few utterances by her. Now the three women are also suffering poverty, without men to provide. “Then she arose with her daughters in law, that she might return from the country of Moab: for she had heard in the country of Moab how that the Lord had visited his people in giving them bread.”
The daughters in law accompany her, but she beseeches them to stay: “Go, return each to her mother's house” (were they also bereft of their fathers?) “the Lord deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me. The Lord grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband.” You are still young. You still have hope of finding a husband and establishing a new household, so stay here, for your own good. “Then she kissed them; and they lifted up their voice, and wept.” She must have been a good mother-in-law, since they are reluctant to part with her. “And they said unto her, Surely we will return with thee unto thy people.” It’s clear she won’t start another family, so they are offering her a way out of the solitary life awaiting her.
Naomi’s answer is a typical depressive monologue, not just in its dominant affect, but also in terms of her perception of reality: she perceives the situation correctly: “Turn again, my daughters: why will ye go with me? Are there yet any more sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Turn again, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old to have an husband. If I should say, I have hope, if I should have an husband also to-night, and should also bear sons; Would ye tarry for them till they were grown? Would ye stay for them from having husbands? Nay, my daughters; for it grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord is gone out against me.”
What possible answer to such sober desperation? One can only go on weeping. That was also what Job’s friends had done, having come to console him: faced with their friend’s unbelievable calamity, their first reaction is a great wailing, without words: “And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.” (Job 2:12-13) And so do the two daughters-in-law: “And they lifted up their voice, and wept again”
The younger of the two, Orpah, wife of Chilion, does obey Naomi; she kisses her and turns back to her own mother’s home. The widow now has an additional argument for convincing the widow of her firstborn: “Behold, thy sister in law is gone back unto her people, and unto her gods: return thou after thy sister in law.” The term used in the original Hebrew (יְבִמְתֵּךְ, yevimtech), translated as “sister in law”, alludes to the young woman’s misfortune: had Chilion lived after Mahlon’s death, he would have married her in a levirate marriage (the Jewish practice of Yibbum, related to the form yevimtech) as a second wife, as did Onan, son of Judah. But even that option is no longer available. Did not Orpah make the better choice, then?
Two bursts of weeping were Ruth’s first and second utterances. Now we hear her voice a third time. This time in words, and they are decisive. She does not attempt to contradict the depressive logic, because there is truly no point. Naomi is right. Ruth’s answer does not stem from the realm of logic. She poses a simple fact: “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.” Death, present in every word of the mother-in-law as the end of the lonely life facing her, is used by the daughter-in-law as a rhetorical device, albeit a patently irrational one, to counter the logic of despair. There is no hope? Maybe, but in this hopelessness, as in the weeping, I will be with you from now, day and night, till death do us part. Ruth is practicing what my beloved teacher, the late Prof. Israel Orbach: First of all, descend into the abyss of the experience of the hopeless individual. Spend as much time with that person as it may take, and only then try to find hope together.
We cannot know what the two spoke about henceforth. No doubt, there were long silences on their long journey westward.Lamentation was heard when they arrived in Judea, too. “And it came to pass, when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved about them, and they said, Is this Naomi? And she said unto them, Call me not Naomi [“pleasant” --tr.], call me Mara [“the bitter one” in Aramaic --tr.]: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me.I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the Lord hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me?”
And again, it’s all true. One can’t argue with these words. This time, Ruth is silent. For her own despair is no less profound: she is a foreign refugee among a people commanded by their religion to abhor her. And what’s worse -- she is an unmarried woman. It is odd that extant exegeses of the book of Ruth do not deal with a very dark aspect, only hinted at, in the book. The modern term “sexual harassment” pales as a description for what would befall a lone immigrant woman begging for charity in those times. Ostensibly, the Israelite is uniquely compassionate toward the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner:
“Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If thou afflict them in any wise, and they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry; And my wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.” (Exodus 22:21-24)
“The Lord preserveth the strangers; he relieveth the fatherless and widow: but the way of the wicked he turneth upside down.” (Psalms 146:9)
“Thou shalt not pervert the judgment of the stranger, nor of the fatherless; nor take a widow's raiment to pledge: But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee thence: therefore I command thee to do this thing. When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow: that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands. When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it afterward: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt: therefore I command thee to do this thing.” (Deuteronomy 24:17-22)
But let us not pretend. This was a man’s world, and the plight of a foreigner widow had no value in it.Obscenities, pinches, and harassment would be her lot from now on whenever she leaves the house, and undoubtedly it would sometimes escalate to rape, too. Even the infamous Torah law, requiring the rapist the “punishment” of marrying his victim, does not apply to a gentile woman, and certainly not to a Moabite. It is no accident that Naomi describes marriage, at the beginning of the book and near its end, as “rest”.
They make their home in Bethlehem, and there we hear the young woman’s voice a fourth time. This time, it is the voice of life: she is hungry, as is her broken mother-in-law, no doubt, but the older woman remains silent. The young woman responds to the body’s call for the both of them: “And Ruth the Moabitess said unto Naomi, Let me now go to the field, and glean ears of corn after him in whose sight I shall find grace.”
Woe to such “finding grace”! But this request finally elicits a practical response from the depressed mother-in-law: “Go, my daughter.”
“And Naomi had a kinsman of her husband's, a mighty man of wealth, of the family of Elimelech; and his name was Boaz.” Could Ruth have already heard in Bethlehem of the wealthy relative living in the town, or was he mentioned in the family back in Moab, or is it mere chance? She goes out to the field belonging to Boaz, and at noon the grand owner arrives. “and said unto the reapers, The Lord be with you. And they answered him, The Lord bless thee.” What sort of man was Boaz? An elderly family man whose concubine she hoped to become, to escape poverty? Or perhaps still a bachelor, and even handsome? Clearly, she attracts his gaze. “Then said Boaz unto his servant that was set over the reapers, Whose damsel is this? And the servant that was set over the reapers answered and said, It is the Moabitish damsel that came back with Naomi out of the country of Moab: And she said, I pray you, let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves: so she came, and hath continued even from the morning until now, that she tarried a little in the house.” Hearing this, the owner of the field entreats her passionately: “Hearest thou not, my daughter? Go not to glean in another field, neither go from hence, but abide here fast by my maidens”.
Prostrating herself, she now speaks her fifth utterance: “Why have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldest take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger?” I heard about you, he responds. “It hath fully been shewed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother in law since the death of thine husband: and how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come unto a people which thou knewest not heretofore. The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust.”
She can be charming, seductive. “Let me find favour in thy sight, my lord; for that thou hast comforted me, and for that thou hast spoken friendly unto thine handmaid, though I be not like unto one of thine handmaidens.” Where does this devotion come from? From the empty stomach, or from Eros blooming again in spring?
“have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee?”, he says, knowing full well that women in her situation were prey. This also informs his admonition to his workers: “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and reproach her not: And let fall also some of the handfuls of purpose for her, and leave them, that she may glean them, and rebuke her not.” Reproaches -- a euphemism -- would have become her daily lot had Boaz not issue her this explicit protection.
When she returns home at the end of the day, Naomi strikes a new tone: “Where hast thou gleaned to-day? And where wroughtest thou? Blessed be he that did take knowledge of thee.” Ruth tells her about Boaz, and her mother-in-law is overjoyed: “Blessed be he of the Lord, who hath not left off his kindness to the living and to the dead. And Naomi said unto her, The man is near of kin unto us, one of our next kinsmen.” So there is hope, at least for this summer, from the same God who had brought her bitter misfortune. “It is good, my daughter, that thou go out with his maidens, that they meet thee not in any other field.” Naomi, too, is well aware of the risk her daughter-in-law was exposed to.
Then, the meager pantry having been replenished, Naomi speaks, and this time her voice is the voice of a mother: “My daughter, shall I not seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee? And now is not Boaz of our kindred, with whose maidens thou wast? Behold, he winnoweth barley to night in the threshingfloor. Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the floor: but make not thyself known unto the man, until he shall have done eating and drinking. And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do.”
Is it just the voice of mother Naomi speaking now, or is it also the voice of the matriarch, neglected Leah, who had been snuck into Jacob’s bed at her father’s behest, and had to compete with her sister for his affections afterwards? “And Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, Thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son's mandrakes. And he lay with her that night.” (Genesis 30:16)
And so, whereas Ruth chose to abide with Naomi in solitude and despair, Naomi now abides with Ruth in wooing, seduction, and hope. “And it came to pass at midnight, that the man was afraid, and turned himself: and, behold, a woman lay at his feet. And he said, Who art thou?”
The Moabite’s sixth utterance is a whisper, the voice of intimacy and passion: “I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman.” Being older than her, he is flattered by this wooing, as demonstrated by the slight blush in his whisper: “Blessed be thou of the Lord, my daughter: for thou hast shewed more kindness in the latter end than at the beginning, inasmuch as thou followedst not young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, fear not; I will do to thee all that thou requirest”
Then, at the end of the third chapter, and before that night gives way to dawn, we hear Ruth’s voice for the seventh and last time. “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. Then said she, Sit still, my daughter, until thou know how the matter will fall: for the man will not be in rest, until he have finished the thing this day.” The role of women in this story is over. In the morning, in the fourth and final chapter, Boaz will wait at the Bethlehem town gate for the other relative, the legal “redeemer”, and witnessed by ten elders, will buy the inheritance from him, including the precious human asset that is Ruth. Indeed, we have not whitewashed this story, a story taking place in a world only few women ever got to influence.
We can now notice an enormous arc across the entire Bible coming full circle here. Two dead husbands and a woman sneaking into a man’s bed... so did Lot’s daughters, mothers of Ammon and Moab, after their husbands’ death, having intercourse with their father who chose to abandon them to be raped by strangers; so did Leah at her deceitful father’s bidding, lying in Jacob’s bed instead of Rachel; and so did Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, when she seduced her father-in-law after both her husbands died one after the other, “for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.” (Genesis 38:14) The author’s knowing allusion to these stories is clear: “And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of corn” delicately evokes Lot’s daughters’ getting their father drunk.Ruth’s act, “And she lay at his feet until the morning: and she rose up before one could know another. And he said, Let it not be known that a woman came into the floor”, is an echo of what’s told of her distant ancestress: “Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father. [...] and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose.” (Genesis 19:32-33) Another clear echo is in the words of the “redeemer”, the relative who would refuse the following day to marry Ruth and perform yibbum -- “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I mar mine own inheritance” -- alluding to the dramatic act of Onan son of Judah: “And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.” (Genesis 38:9) However, and this is what’s unique about the book of Ruth, what was in the older stories lustful and blunt, namely incest (and in David’s case, even escalates to the undisguised crime of killing the “son” by the “father” coveting his wife), is here sublimated into the romantic gesture of uncovering the legs: Ruth only removes the blanket covering the legs of the sleeping man, and lies beside them, leaving the decision to him. In the ancient world, ruled oppresively by men, women’s guile, in the most crucial moments, could save families from extinction.
And indeed, the allusion is confirmed by the benediction of the bridegroom by the town elders the next day: "The Lord make the woman that is come into thine house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel [...] And let thy house be like the house of Pharez, whom Tamar bare unto Judah". Even though the elders omit the pedigree of the bride, the motif is clear: a multi-generational conspiracy by resourceful women. To this dynasty of women (to which we can add in Solomon's day Naamah the Ammonite) Judaism attaches the house of King David, and the future Messiah. But unlike the archetypal, mythical nature of the rest of the dynasty, this particular link in the chain is not a myth, but a novel, and in it the ancient Bethlehem community shines in its compassionate and inclusive treatment of the foreign woman.
We may thank Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, but also thank another brave woman: Hemda Ben-Yehuda. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda -- a fanatical zealot who terrorized his family lest they utter a single word in a foreign language -- whom she loved even in her childhood, was still relatively young when his wife Devorah fell ill and died, followed within ten days by three of their children: Avichayil, Atara, and Shelomit. Ben-Yehuda himself has been defying death for years, suffering from consumption, an incurable, terminal illness at the time. At the explicit request of her sister Devorah on her deathbed, Hemda married Eliezer, bore him additional children, and assisted him in his efforts to revive the Hebrew language as a spoken language. It is thanks to him, and to her, that we can read this wonderful text, the book of Ruth, without difficulty even today. And how fitting it is that two very important terms in modern Hebrew originate in the book of Ruth:
“and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel” (from which the modern Hebrew word for salary (משכורת, maskoret) is derived. --tr.)
“the Lord gave her conception” (from which the modern word for pregnancy (הריון, herayon) is derived. --tr.)
Happy holiday to all the desperate foreigners in our midst, and to the handful of Israelis who stand ready to redeem them from their persecutors.