And she went forth out of the place where she was, and her two daughters-
in-law with her; and they went on the way to return unto the land of
And Naomi said unto her two daughters-in-law: 'Go, return each of you to
her mother's house; HaShem deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the
dead, and with me.
HaShem grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her
husband.' Then she kissed them; and they lifted up their voice, and wept.
and they said unto her: 'Nay, but we will return with thee unto thy
One of the most baffling aspects of this narrative is the loyalty, love
and affection that Naomi inspired in her two daughters-in-law, a feat rare
enough amongst women raised in the same culture and sharing the same
spirit, much less for a Judean mother-in-law and the Moabites who married
her sons. Did she not feel bitterness and betrayal after have her sons’
intermarriage and distancing from theirs, from hers, heritage? Would she
be able to move past hurt and disappointment to perceive that she gained
two daughters, two precious souls even if their mannerisms, comportment
and speech were so unlike the modest ways of Judean women. And do not be
deceived – the chasm between those brought up under the wings of Divine
Presence and those who grew up in the shadow of idol Kemosh was surely
wide. Those familiar with observant Jewish lifestyle appreciate the many
details and customs that circumscribe, elevate and sanctify every moment
of daily life. Oprah and Ruth surely had no idea. A glimpse of this gulf
can be grasped from when Ruth already lived some time in Bethlehem. Here
she, already committed the Jewish way of life, unwittingly contravenes
something as basic as public separation of the sexes, a feature of life in
Judea but apparently not in Moab. Note how Naomi gently brings this to her
Then said Boaz unto Ruth: 'Hearest thou not, my daughter? Go not to lean
in another field, neither pass from hence, but abide here fast by my
And Ruth the Moabitess said: 'Yea, he said unto me: Thou shalt keep fast
by my young men, until they have ended all my harvest.'
And Naomi said unto Ruth her daughter-in-law: 'It is good, my daughter,
that thou go out with his maidens, and that thou be not met in any other
field (Ruth 2:8, 21-22).'
No matter how well-meaning, these daughters-in-law must have seemed
foreign to their mother-in-law. How easy would it have been for her to
disapprove and to seek justification and sanction in the command, “Thou
shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days for ever
(Deuteronomy 22, 7)”. But, Naomi, whose name means pleasantness and whose
soul was tied to the root of Loving-Kindness rose above all that and, so,
her daughters-in-law adored her.
However, Naomi realized that the step that they were about to take must be
based on something much more profound than a personal connection. She knew
that people join religious communities for one of three basic reasons, or
some variations and combinations thereof. Some are driven by personal
considerations – love, friendship, search for acceptance, anger at the
place from which they have come. Others are drawn to the mannerisms,
language, social structures, and the way of life. A few are pursuing the
religious idea itself. Personal considerations rarely survive adversity.
Social identification once established can endure but are of little merit.
A true righteous proselyte is a treasure and an inspiration.
So she probes, HaShem grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the
house of her husband.' Then she kissed them; and they lifted up their
voice, and wept. And they said unto her: 'Nay, but we will return with
thee unto thy people.'
Is their motivation social or religious?
What Naomi recognizes and her daughters-in-law do not know is that her
people might not be as welcoming as her daughters-in-law imagine. What do
they know of Judeans but Naomi and Elimelech, Machlon and Kilyon? These
were aristocrats, people of stature, peopel of spirit. Will the average
citizen of Bethlehem be able to see beyond the Moabite exterior?
Naomi recognizes that reality often falls short of ideals and that even
those who should know better so often behave in ways that are limited and
petty. He who puts stock in human beings is sure to eventually be
"Thus saith HaShem: Cursed is the man that trusteth in man, and maketh
flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from HaShem. For he shall be like
a tamarisk in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall
inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, a salt land and not
inhabited. Blessed is the man that trusteth in HaShem, and whose trust
HaShem is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that
spreadeth out its roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh,
but its foliage shall be luxuriant; and shall not be anxious in the year
of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit. The heart is
deceitful above all things, and it is exceeding weak--who can know it?"
(Jeremiah 17, 5-9)
Coming back with two Moabite daughters-in-law was not particularly good
for Naomi’s reputation either, a constant reminder of her family’s sin and
assimilation. Group cohesiveness is absolutely necessary to keep a
religious society internally bound against outside winds and to preserve
its uniqueness and mission but it also often results in regrettable side
effects – lack of vision, intolerance, distrust of the stranger. She knew
that she was returning to a stratified society in which Moabite women and
their handler could not easily find a group to which to belong. Could she
foresee that inner righteousness will triumph over social strictures?
Could she bank that the best in her people will come out? Yes, as we know,
ultimately the generosity and universality of Jewish spirit came through
to their aid but how could she have known? How could she explain this to
Oprah and Ruth, who expected to find Bethlehem populated by Naomis and
Elimelechs, who looked forward to being loved and accepted as Naomi loved
and cherished them, that it was not so. How could she crush their spirit
and destroy their faith?
"Why is she sanding them back? So as not to suffer shame on their
account, for so we have found: There were many streets in Jerusalem but
the inhabitants of one would not mix with the inhabitants of another.
There was a (separate) street for the royals, a separate street for
priests, for Levites, for Israelites. People were recognized in the market
place by the clothes that they wore. No one single group wore the same
clothing as another (Ruth Zura 8)."
What to do? Naomi invokes the emotional power of marriage and childbearing
and discounts the social aspects of moving to Bethlehem.
And Naomi said: 'Turn back, my daughters; why will ye go with me? have I
yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?
Turn back, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old to have a husband.
If I should say: I have hope, should I even have an husband to-night, and
also bear sons; would ye tarry for them till they were grown? would ye
shut yourselves off for them and have no husbands? nay, my daughters; for
it grieveth me much for your sakes, for the hand of HaShem is gone forth
Naomi makes several important points. She subtly indicates that Orpah and
Ruth might have great difficulty finding husbands in Bethlehem (that the
prohibition of marrying Moabites applies only to males was not widely
known, perhaps not even to Naomi herself). At the same time, she
introduces the concept of Levirite marriage. In that she foreshadows the
future and preserves hope amidst despair.
She also demonstrates that she truly and deeply cares about personal
hapiness of her two daughters-in-law. People in pain often cannot find
heart to care for others. That Naomi is able to rise above her truly
tragic personal situation is in itself an indication of an elevated
spiritual stature and vindicates the Sages’ reading of her character.
Orpah is swayed, for her attachment to her mother-in-law is personal and
social but Ruth rises to the heights of spiritual heroism. Ruth
accompanies Naomi not only becayse she oves her but because Naomi teaches
Ruth how to worship the God of Israel.
And they lifted up their voice, and wept again; and Orpah kissed her
mother-in-law; but Ruth cleaved unto her.
“A ray of loving kindness illuminates the path of these two daughters of
Moab and it is reflected indirectly upon Machlon and Kilyon who have by
now receded behind the horizon. The Book of Ruth does not disclose the
nature of the inner life of this family. Yet the passionate devotion of
the daughters-in-law the mother of their departed husbands allows us to
appraise the purity and warmth permeating the family life of these two
aristocrats of Judah. Otherwise the strong ties binding the women to this
family would be utterly incomprehensible…The strongest influence, however,
emanates from Naomi. She was “refined in word and deed”. Orpah and Ruth
were drawn toward her like planets gravitating around the sun (Rabbi I. Z.
Lipowitz in Nachal Yosef).
Both Orpah and Ruth bore love and affection for Naomi; however, Ruth was
also fired up by a religious ideal that led her beyond the world of
feeling and emotion, beyond concern with personal happiness and private
life. As we continue delving into their conversation, the greatness of
this remarkable personality will become fully apparent.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and Torah.org.