20 September 2015 - 7 Tishri 5776 - ז' תשרי ה' אלפים תשע"ו
Hidden Layers in Megillat Ruth Print E-mail

Shavuot is in many ways the least famous Jewish holiday. It lacks the accoutrements of Succoth and Chanukah, the activities of Purim and Pesach, the exaltation of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Other than eating dairy foods and learning – traditionally throughout the whole of the first night – there isn’t very much to it.

On Shavuot we read Megillat Ruth. There is a very clear connection between Ruth and Shavuot. Shavuot is the holiday on which we celebrate our gift of the Torah. Ruth is the story of a Moabite woman whose acceptance of Judaism is so complete that she becomes the great-grandmother of King David, and by extension, the maternal ancestor of our Messiah.

The story opens as Elimelech, a wealthy man of the tribe of Yehuda, Naomi, and their two sons, Machlon and Kilyon, flee a famine in the land of Israel. Nothing good comes of this, apparently. First Elimelech loses all his wealth and then he dies. Then both sons die. And finally Naomi, left with two daughters-in-law of questionable conversion status, decides to return to her country. (According to tradition, both Ruth and the other daughter-in-law, Orpah, did convert. The question is how deep and real is their commitment to Judaism. Ruth confirms her conviction. Orpah renounces hers.)

First, the rabbis tell us there is a big problem with the names of Naomi and Elimelech’s sons. Any parent knows that you choose a name for your child carefully. You give your child a name with positive inclinations or connotations. But “Machlon” is translated as “sickness,” and “Kilyon” as “finished”!  What kind of parents were Naomi and Elimelech to curse their sons with such names?

The commentators come down pretty hard on Elimelech for leaving Israel at a time when his people need him. Combine this apparent cowardly behaviour with the unfortunate names, and everything looks so gloomy that you really hope there is something else going on here.

According to Rabbi Avraham Sutton, something else definitely is going on.

We know that behind the pshat, or plain meaning of a text, there may be many other layers of meaning. The layers behind the story of Ruth hint at reincarnation and redemption.

Rabbi Sutton’s reading places Elimelech in the role of an undercover agent, who sacrifices his bad name to redeem precious souls from Moab. “Machlon” can also be from “mechilah” – forgiveness; and “Kilyon” can be complete self-sacrifice. So how does this work? Who’s being redeemed?

According to the kabbalah, the “light” of the Messiah was split in half after Avraham’s time. Half descended into Isaac and then into Yaacov and his sons, including Yehuda (Elimelech’s forbear). The other half was hidden in the nations of Moab and Ammon.
Moab descended from Lot. Ruth the Moabitess was a physical descendant of Lot, but contains the spiritual DNA of Avraham.

When Ruth marries Boaz, these two halves are reunited.

Rabbi Yaakov Medan finds some interesting parallels between the story of Ruth and the story of Lot. Lot, like Elimelech, leaves the land, and is punished similarly to Elimelech: his wife dies, and his sons-in-law and married daughters are destroyed.

Yehuda goes through a similar ordeal. After he sells his brother Yosef, he marries, then his wife dies, his two sons die, and he initially refuses to allow his third son to marry Tamar, as he had promised. Shamed by Tamar into finally keeping his promise, Yehuda allows his third son to “redeem” her through levirate marriage. This is the same redemption that Boaz enacts to marry Ruth.

There’s one more redemption at work in the story. Elimelech is criticised for cruelly leaving during a famine. Ruth rectifies this act with her kindness to her mother-in-law. She transforms herself into a new being for Naomi’s benefit. Having nothing to give Naomi to replace what she has lost, Ruth can give only herself, and take upon herself the restoration of Naomi’s soul.

She does all this and more. The other women say to Naomi: “Blessed is the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, that his name may be famous…for thy daughter in law, who loves thee, who is better to thee than seven sons, …has borne him.” (Ruth 4:14-15)

Any Jewish woman who’s better to her mother-in-law than seven sons is blessed indeed.

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