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07.06.2019 01:51    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  holidays  shavuot  ruth  

Ruth: The Scroll of Troubles?

The Book of Ruth is one of the most fascinating books of the entire Bible. The fact is that almost every verse of the book begins with the Hebrew conjunction, ve, indicating that the narrative is continuous and uninterrupted, contributing to the fascination the book holds for us.

Ruth Rabbah (proem 7) says:

Wherever it is said, "and it came to pass" (va-yehi), it denotes trouble (vay yehi= there was woe). Here we have "and it came to pass" twice: "And it came to pass in the days of the judging of the judges" that there was a dearth of Torah (a generation that judges its judges); "and it came to pass that there was a famine in the land," that there was a dearth of bread; Elimelech then said: Throngs [of the hungry] wait at my doorstep every morning—and so he fled [the country].

Indeed, this book could have been called the Scroll of Troubles, or Scroll of Suffering, as presented in Yalkut Shimoni (Ruth 596): "What has the Book of Ruth to do with Atzeret [Shavuot], that it is read on Atzeret at the time the Torah was given? This is to teach us that the Torah was given only through suffering and hardship."

According to the homiletic interpretations of the Sages, the Book of Ruth is also the book of symbols and symbolism, as illustrated by the names of the figures mentioned in it: Elimelech was one of the important men of the city; his sons, Mahlon and Chilion ("Sickly" and "Ruin"), were so named because of their [bitter] end. In the same spirit, we can add that the fact of the family coming from Bethlehem ("House of Bread") was also symbolic, for bread is often symbolic of poverty, as when a person is "reduced to a loaf of bread," and lo, hard times also came to Bethlehem, a place where there is supposed to be an abundance of bread.

Some of the suffering described in this book is explained in the gemara (Bava Bathra 91a): "And so said R. Simeon b. Yohai: Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion were [of the] great men of their generation, and they were [also] leaders of their generation. Why, then, were they punished? Because they left Palestine for a foreign country."

Naomi's suffering was of a different nature. Her suffering reminds us of the suffering of Job, both in intensity and in the fact that it mounted on her gradually. First, her husband died; second, her two sons married Moabite women (even though according to a homily in Yalkut Shimoni [Ruth 600], Ruth and Orpah were the daughters of Eglon, King of Moab, they were nevertheless still Moabite); third, although they lived together some ten years, they did not manage to have children; fourth, her two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, died. So who was left? There remained only three widows, where Naomi, the senior, found herself in a foreign land, among a foreign people. From the context of the story we may deduce a fifth hardship: the abundance at the beginning of the story had given way to poverty and want.

The turns taken by Job's life (as described in Job, chapter 1) are similar. He, too, is described as being a well-to-do, honest and straight person who was visited by troubles hard to bear, one after the other; he lost not only his wealth, but also his children.

Both Naomi and Job lend similar expression to their misery. Naomi says to the people of Bethlehem, "Call me Mara (= bitterness), for Shaddai has made my lot very bitter" (Ruth 1:20); and Job says, "Shaddai has embittered my life" (Job 27:2).

Another similarity between the two is in the attitude of others towards them. When Naomi arrived in Bethlehem, the people did not recognize her and asked, "Could this be Naomi?" (Ruth 1:19), and likewise it is told of Job that his friends could not recognize him (Job 2:12).

As in Job, so too in Ruth, the book ends on an upbeat, with the hero being blessed and bearing progeny. Of Job it is explicitly said, "Thus the Lord blessed the latter years of Job's life more than the former" (Job. 42:12), and Ruth, blessed by the elders and all the people at the city gate, and later also by the women, became the great grandmother of David, King of Israel.

Thus, this wonderful book is transformed from a tale of woe to a tale of hope, from the book of troubles to the book of loving mercy; and its conclusion makes it the book of monarchy in Israel, as the psalmist said: "He raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the refuse heap…," ending with the words "a happy mother of children" (Ps. 113). Naomi and Ruth also embody the realization of the verse from Job (8:7), "Though your beginning be small, in the end you will grow very great."

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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