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A World of Kindness:

An Analysis of Megillat Ruth (II)

 

I

RECAP

In the first installment, we analyzed the first 19 verses of Megillat Ruth, noting many “B’resheet-terms” which place the sense of the story squarely in the Patriarchal stories. Along with many “detail” questions raised in our verse-by-verse analysis, several “overview” questions came to the fore:

  1. The story is placed during the period of the Shof’tim (1:1) – yet the immanence of the God-Yisra’el relationship which typifies that time period is absent throughout the story.
  2. In almost diametrical apposition to the narratives of Sefer Shof’tim, the story here shows no concern whatsoever with national issues (save the famine and its reversal – which are necessary for the set-up of the plot); it is totally focused around the fortunes of one family.
  3. We are given no clue as to why Ruth and Orpah are so devoted to Naomi.
  4. Our overall question: Why is this Megillah read on Shavu’ot?

We will continue analyzing the text of the Megillah and will complete through the first chapter in this installment. Before moving on to the second chapter (next week), we will point out several structural insights that will help to inform our understanding of the Megillah.

At the end of last week’s shiur, we left Naomi and Ruth as they were about to complete their return to Beit Lechem Yehudah…

 

II

NAOMI AND RUTH IN BEIT LECHEM (1:19b-22)

OVERVIEW

Whereas in the previous interaction between Naomi and her Kalot, it was Naomi’s selflessness that stood out as the defining feature of her entreaties, this brief near-monologue, which Naomi states in response to the incredulity expressed by the women of Beit Lechem, reflects a woman who is anything but “pleasant” (as her name denotes) or selfless. The final verse brings the first chapter to conclusion, setting the scene for the momentous events of the second chapter.

 

1.19…And it came to pass, when they came to Beit-Lechem, that all the city was stirred because of them, and they said, “Is this Naomi”?

The original ( vaTo’marna ) indicates that it is the women of the town who are surprised at Naomi’s (appearance? presence?). Note that although the townswomen noticed “them” (Naomi and Ruth), their surprise is only mentioned regarding Naomi. This is perfectly understandable, as they have no familiarity with Ruth…although their silence in her regard is a bit surprising, and foreshadows the unsettling lacuna in Naomi’s response.

The women here operate in the role of the chorus in a Greek tragedy – commenting on the situation on behalf of the audience/reader, thereby allowing/encouraging one of the central characters to comment on his/her situation. We understand that we should be surprised at Naomi’s appearance – or understand that her return to Beit Lechem is nothing like her departure. (In contemporary terms, she left in the passenger seat of her husband’s luxury car and has returned on a Greyhound bus). The chorus of women also allows Naomi to comment – bitterly – on her diminished station.

 

1.20. And she said to them:

Call me not Naomi, call me Mara [meaning “bitter”]; for Shad-dai has dealt very bitterly with me.

1.21. I went out full, and Hashem has brought me back empty; why then do you call me Naomi, seeing Hashem has testified against me, and Shad-dai has afflicted me?

Naomi’s response is written in the form of Shirah (Biblical poetry). There are several chiasma (A-B-B-A forms: see the detailed explanation of chiasmus in Biblical literary structure in V’shinantam 1/16) here: (read these in a clockwise manner)

 

A1: Shad-dai B1: Hashem

A2: Shad-dai B2: Hashem

A1: Naomi B1: Mara

A2: Naomi B2: dealt bitterly

We also find that she begins and ends her plaint with “Call me not Naomi”, in between these declarations about the impropriety of her name, she attributes her affliction to God.

The effect of these chiasma, besides establishing these two verses as pure Shirah, is to place certain ideas at the core of her plaint.

First of all, although she attributes her bitterness to Shad-dai (a name which may be related to the root Shadad [plunder] – see Yoel 1:15, Yeshaya 13:6), the name Hashem appears in the middle, justifying the judgment against her (see, inter alia, Eikhah 1:18).

Second, her name change is highlighted, being placed in the middle of the mentions of her legitimate name; this is further underscored by her statement “call me not Naomi”, which opens the auto-elegy as well as closing it.

Before looking at the truly astonishing nature of this auto-elegy, there is one additional linguistic feature to note. Naomi’s use of the Divine name Shad-dai (without the Name E-l before hand) only shows up in Biblical poetry (never in prose) – and that rarely – with one exception. The book of Iyyov, the great bulk of which (Chapters 3-41) are purely Shirah, utilizes this Name thirty times. This fortifies the notion that Naomi is the “female Job” in the T’nakh. See, for instance, the phrase in Iyyov 27:2: v’Shad-dai hemar li – (By Shad-dai, who has embittered my life).

What is amazing about this response is the total about-face we sense in Naomi upon her arrival in Beit-Lechem. Although she already alluded (foreshadowed?) the bitterness theme which is the anthem of this lament (see 1:13 - ki mar li m’od mikkem ), until now, her words reflected a near-total concern with the welfare of others. We are told nothing about her attitude before the “dialogue-on-the-road” with her Kalot, but that interaction was informed by her selfless devotion to their welfare. She certainly had nothing to gain by sending them home to “their nations and their gods…and their mother’s homes”; it was clearly a heroic attempt to push them out of her nest for their own good.

In our analysis of 1:18, we noted that “Naomi stopped speaking” to Ruth, on the face of it, just meant that that particular conversation was over. Ruth refused to even give an ear to Naomi’s arguments - so that “dispute” was finished. In reality, though, we don’t hear Naomi speaking to Ruth until the beginning of Chapter 2. Furthermore, Naomi has totally “divested” herself of Ruth to the point that she doesn’t even acknowledge her presence – note the scored words here:

Call me not Naomi, call me Mara [meaning “bitter”]; for Shad-dai has dealt very bitterly with me.I went out full, and Hashem has brought me back empty; why then do you call me Naomi, seeing Hashem has testified against me, and Shad-dai has afflicted me?

The self-centeredness evidenced in this Shirah is surprising, to be sure. Even more surprising (besides her attributing only the bitterness to God – “I went out full, and Hashem has brought me back empty…”) is her sense of total isolation: “Hashem has brought me back empty” – what about her loyal Kalah, standing next to her? At least she, Naomi, is back at home, where people know her and remember her “glory days”. What of her devoted daughter-in-law, who has left kith and kin to sojourn with Naomi in this foreign land? How can Naomi turn her back on her in this fashion?

In order to answer this, I’d like to go back to 1:6 and revisit a question from last week’s shiur. Why does that verse, which concludes the “set-up” of the plot, imply that Naomi and her Kalot had already arrived in Beit Lechem Yehudah? In the next verse we begin to hear about the “dialogue-on-the-road”, after which Orpah departs. How do we understand the sense of 1:6? In addition, why does that verse indicate their return to Beit Lechem Yehudah in “matter-of-fact” fashion, without noting any hesitation on Naomi’s part? Why is she only aware of the difficult future awaiting them once on the road?

Let us try to step into Naomi’s shoes for a moment. When she first heard that Hashem had visited his people and given them bread, she must have been filled with a great excitement about her imminent return home. (Many of us have experienced this feeling; e.g. the first few minutes after opening an invitation to a high-school reunion or just after booking tickets to visit long-lost relatives or friends) Filled with the optimism that “things will be just like they were in the ‘good old days’ (surely onof the most enduring human myths) “, she confidset out for Beit Lechem to return to her friends, family and land. This is the ebullience implied in v. 6. Although it implies that they returned all of the way, the verse is really giving us a glimpse into her state of mind – she anticipated a quick and easy return to Beit Lechem.

Once on the road, however, a bit of reality began to set in. Her station was significantly different – for the worse – from the time she had left. Her husband and sons were dead, she had two Moavite Kalot in tow (neither of which was of the Israelite faith yet – see 1:15); in addition, any land which she had claim to (as Elimelekh’s wife) and which she had previously enjoyed as a landowner was now owned by others. The family had been forced to sell it before leaving for Moav (as is evidenced by the entire Ge’ulah process in Chapter 4). It is akin to realizing, on the way to visit those long-lost friends, that so many of your dreams and aspirations from those “good old days” not only remained unrealized; your life had taken a decided turn for the worse since the last time you saw them. Hence, Naomi turns to her daughters-in-law with a partial realization of what awaits them and tries to persuade them to go home – she has nothing to offer them in Beit Lechem.

Upon her arrival, however, the realization of the “reality gap” which separates the idyllic vision of her renewed life in Beit Lechem and what really awaits her sets in.

At this point, an understandable depression sets in. After all, throughout her (more than) ten years of exile, through the death of a husband and after burying her two sons, she has somehow kept the hope alive that once she returns home, all will be well. It is only when she actualizes that dream and experiences the attendant disappointment (which we see through the words of the astounded “BeitLechem chorus”: “Is this Naomi?”) that her spirit deflates inward.

Two of the hallmarks of depression are self-centeredness and helplessness. Naomi, atypically (from what we know about her) and abruptly turns inwards, focusing all of her words on her own situation and paying no attention to Ruth, her loyal (and foreign) friend and companion. Her helplessness becomes evident at the beginning of the second chapter.

1.22. So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moavite, her daughter-in-law, with her, who returned from the country of Moav; and they came to Beit-Lechem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

This verse operates as a summary to the chapter, bringing us back to where we had begun the story (leaving Beit-Lechem for Moav); contrapositioning the famine which led to the sojourn with the beginning of the barley harvest.

This verse also prepares us for the next chapter, which will all take place in one day in the field at the beginning of the barley harvest. Before analyzing this section, a few significant words about the structure of the Megillah.

 

 

III

 

STRUCTURAL CONSIDERATIONS

Before moving on to the second chapter, let’s take a look at the structure of the first chapter – along with some overall observations.

 

THE STRUCTURE OF THE FIRST CHAPTER

Besides the introductory verses, which establish the premise of the story, the first chapter is made up of 17 verses (6-22) which are made up of two even subsections of 8 verses each, with the fulcrum-verse (14) in the middle:

  1. vv. 6-13: Naomi, Orpah and Ruth
  2. v. 14: “Orpah kissed her mother-in-law and Ruth cleaved to her”
  3. vv. 14-22: Naomi and Ruth

Note that the “keyword” ( Shuv - “return”) appears a total of twelve times in this brief chapter. We will yet revisit the significance of this number; note, however, how evenly the use of this verb is distributed in the chapter:

6 times: “Shuv” appears in the first half of the section (vv. 6,7,8,10,11,12)

6 times: “Shuv” appears in the second half of the section (vv. 15,15,16,21,22,22)

 

6 times: “Shuv” indicates a return to Beit-Lechem (vv. 6,7,10,21,22,22)

6 times: “Shuv” indicates a return to Moav (vv. 8, 11,12,15,15,16)

 

4 times: “Shuv” refers to Naomi (always returning to Beit Lechem) (vv. 6,7,21,22)

4 times: “Shuv” refers to both of the Kalot (vv. 8,10,11,12)

4 times: “Shuv” refers to one of the Kalot (vv. 15,16,17,22)

Naomi speaks four times in the chapter: twice in the first section (vv. 8-9, 11-13), twice in the second (v. 15, 20-21). Note the parallels between her first speech in the first section (vv. 8-9) and her first speech in the second section (v. 15); both adjure the daughter(s) to return to their homes, emphasizing the positive in what awaits them. The second speeches in both sections are also parallel to each other – both stress the bitterness (and use that word – Mar ) which Naomi has experienced at the hand of God.

Note also how the second section ends (v. 22) with an echo of the first verse of the first section (v. 6):

v. 6: Then she arose with her daughters-in-law, to return from the country of Moav; for she had heard in the country of Moav that Hashem had visited his people and given them bread.

v. 22. So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moavite, her daughter-in-law, with her, who returned from the country of Moav; and they came to Beit-Lechem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

What are we to make of this elaborate literary structure? Besides the sheer elegance of the symmetry, it is clear that the critical point in this chapter is when Ruth, in spite of her sister-in-law’s reluctant kiss of departure, clings to Naomi. I would like to suggest that the equal apportionment of Shuv between the various sections, “returners” and locations implies the great pull that each of these brave women felt as their lives were at this significant crossroads.

 

OVERALL STRUCTURE

[Most of this material is based on Zakovitch’s introduction to his commentary on Ruth in the Mikra l’Yisra’el series; highly recommended reading.]

The four chapters of the Megillah (even though this division is a Christian one and only shows up in Jewish sources with the first printed editions of Mikra’ot G’dolot in the early 16th century, the division is quite helpful in understanding the literary and thematic structure of Ruth) divide in a symmetric fashion:

Chapter 1: Moving from Beit Lechem to Moav (the loss of Elimelekh’s field stands as the background to their self-imposed exile) and returning to Beit-Lechem; the painful losses along the way

Chapter 2: One day in Boaz’s field

Chapter 3: One night in Boaz’s granary

Chapter 4: The redemption of the field (and Ruth); the glorious gains of acceptance among the community of the townswomen and the legacy of the family – leading to the birth of David

 

CHAPTERS 1 & 4

  1. The first and fourth chapters both have “female choruses” whose words are related to the designation of a name (we will yet revisit the issue of names in the Megillah; a fascinating subject which properly belongs to the fourth chapter) associated with Naomi. Note the difference: In the first chapter, their role is negative and their words are brief; the opposite holds true (in both regards) in the final chapter.
  2. Each chapter mentions God’s blessing (the harvest 1:6; Ruth – 4:13); the blessings of bounty and children are found side-by-side in numerous T’nakh texts (e.g. D’varim 28);
  3. In both the first and final chapters, a protagonist “shines” when compared to another positive character. In the first chapter, it is only Ruth’s outstanding devotion that makes Orpah’s loyalty pale; in the final chapter, the Go’el (redeemer) who is prepared to act with kindness, is seen as a lesser benafactor when compared with Bo’az. Indeed, each of the “lesser” personalities here is prepared to “go the distance” until the “ultimate” test is presented. Orpah will not follow Naomi to the dreary existence she portrays in 1:11-13 and the Go’el only backs down from his willingness to redeem Elimelekh’s field when he finds that marrying Ruth is part of the “package”.
  4. The first chapter begins with the lineage (such as it is) of Elimelekh’s family (Ephratim – 1:2) and the fourth chapter ends with the lineage from Peretz to David (4:18-22).
  5. The opening phrase of the Megillah: Vay’hi biY’mei Sh’fot haShof’tim the beginning events in the era of the Shof’tim; the final step in the liof Bo’az (Peretz) is David, leading us into the monarchic period.

 

CHAPTERS 2 & 3

Some of the differences between the second and third chapters are natural results of the different settings. Since the second chapter takes place out in the field, there are several secondary actors present – which is, of course, not the case during that fateful night on the threshing floor of chapter 3.

Several interesting parallels/contrasts:

  1. Each chapter begins with a conversation between Naomi and Ruth, embodying a suggestion towards action that will set further events into motion. In the first case (Chapter 2), it is Ruth who makes the suggestion (we will discuss this next week), whereas the suggestion of Chapter 3 belongs to Naomi. In both cases, however, it is Ruth who is going to take the action.
  2. In Chapter 2, Ruth appears in the field in advance of Bo’az; in Chapter 3, it is Bo’az who is on the threshing floor before Ruth arrives.
  3. In both cases, when Bo’az “discovers” Ruth, he first asks (either the harvesters or her herself) who she is. The common v’Hinei which serves to accentuate the beginning of their interaction appears in 2:4 and 3:8.
  4. Note how the roles of Ruth and Bo’az intertwine between these two chapters. In 2:8-9, Bo’az suggests a course of action to Ruth which involves him (and his field); in 3:9, Ruth directs Bo’az how to act towards her.
  5. In both chapters, Bo’az demonstrates great concern for Ruth’s dignity (compare 2:15-16 with 3:14)
  6. Each chapter concludes with Ruth returning to Naomi’s house; in each case, they wait until the end (the verb Kaleh is used in the final verse of each chapter) of a process – in Chapter 2, it is the end of the harvest season; in Chapter 3, they wait for Bo’az to conclude his dealings at the city gates.

 

IV

CONCLUSIONS

We still haven’t addressed our major questions – over the next few weeks we will suggest answers to all of them. All of these observations serve to highlight the elegant fashion in which this story is told. In addition, the symmetrical structure of the story serves to highlight the powerful character of the three major actors – Naomi, Ruth and Bo’az.

  1. Naomi and Ruth (and Orpah) were pulled in mutually exclusive directions and were called to make painful decisions which affected not only themselves but their progeny and all of Am Yisra’el.
  2. Ruth’s kindness, exhibited both towards Naomi and towards Bo’az, finds its ultimate “mate” in her “opposite number” (as seen through the literary symmetry outlined above) – Bo’az. It is the match made between these two beacons of Hessed which produces the Messianic line.
  3. The relationship between Naomi and Ruth, as presented in the text, is very mutual – each pushes the other towards “solving” their situation. (More on that at the beginning of next week’s shiur.)
  4. The symmetry of the chapters sets up our story as the bridge between the period of the Judges (when “there was no King in Yisra’el, each man doing as he pleases” [Shof’tim 21:25]) and the establishment of the Israelite monarchy.

This final point places the entire story in a wholly different perspective than that seen otherwise. It is a story about personal loyalty and devotion that produces the kindness which permeates the Megillah. Beyond that, however, it is also the story of how the Davidic line is founded – and the firm foundation upon which it rests.

We will resume our analysis of the text next week, beginning with Ruth’s request of Naomi that she be allowed to find a solution to the family’s plight in one of the local fields. It is that request that leads to the fateful meeting between Bo’az and Ruth – a meeting that has echoed through Jewish history until this day.

Text Copyright © 1999 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom.
The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles

 






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