Naomi and Ruth Speak to Us

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Naomi and Ruth Speak to Us

Talk about the Book of Ruth and in a moment we’re talking about mothers and daughters: how Ruth puts herself at risk to look after Naomi, how Ruth clings to her; how they sustain each other through grief and regroup, forming a new kind of family; how Naomi teaches Ruth how to make her way among the barley planters of Bethlehem and get established in a complicated world.

For the sake of accuracy; while we might choose to read the story of Naomi and Ruth’s relationship as the Bible’s paradigmatic mother and daughter, Naomi is, in fact, not Ruth’s mother but her mother-in-law. Ruth, whom the story upholds as the paragon of loyalty, may be a widow, but she is not an orphan: she has a mother of her own in Moab. Though marriage took her out of her parents’ clan and made her a surrogate daughter in the house of her in-laws, within her culture, the death of her husband gave her an opportunity to return to her own mother’s house and seek help there. When commanded to do so by Naomi, Orpah does just this. Ruth does not. She selects Naomi as her surrogate mother, leaving her own mother behind. She commits herself to her mother-in-law as if she were her husband, taking the vow, ‘Wither thou goest, I shall go.’, so often spoken at weddings now.

What happened to honouring one’s parents, the ethical ideal made clear enough in the Ten Commandments? Interestingly, many biblical narratives do not put being a mama’s boy or a mama’s girl over other virtues. How often biblical heroes leave their parents so they can go off into the world and achieve their own personal destiny, forming new alliances along the way. Abraham, for example, leaves his parents and journeys to a place of promise. In effect, Hashem’s rewards him for cutting off his obligations to his family of birth. Would the story of Ruth have been told if she had told Naomi, ‘You’re right. I think I’ll stay home in Moab and go back to my mother’s tent.’ For sure, there is no Book of Orpah.

Let us be clear here. The story of Ruth, a classical ‘how our hero was born’ story, is remembered primarily because Ruth provides the womb through which the line of King David can flourish. Jews believe the Messiah will emerge from this line … I doubt Ruth’s story would have been canonized had it been only about women’s loyalties. Imagine: ‘Once upon a time, there was a young woman, Ruth, whose husband died. She left town with her mother-in-law, a widow as well, and took good care of her. Working together, pooling their resources, using cunning where necessary, the two of them got back on their feet.’ Not likely.

But when we choose to read the story focusing on the bond between Naomi and Ruth, they become guides, helping us to understand how relationships between mothers and daughters might be framed over time.

Their unconventional relationship allows us to see that sometimes we may need to leave our own mothers behind – either physically or emotionally – and find new ones who will mother us better. This possibility is especially important for women who have lost their mothers or who are estranged from them. For most of us, we needn’t literally disconnect from our mothers, though I understand for some people that is a life-giving choice. What we do need is to be able to leave behind old ways of relating to our mothers, to be creative and courageous enough to discontinue our destructive or inappropriate ways of interacting and sculpt new ones. It’s the loyalty we have between us that propels us to do such hard work together.

Naomi was the mother Ruth needed at this juncture in her life. Consider all that Naomi made possible for Ruth: she got her out of Moab, the land of her birth, where people were literally starving, where life had left Ruth stuck, hungry to test her mettle, to start out fresh after the death of her young husband. Naomi gave Ruth the opportunity to learn to live as a stranger among a different people with customs, even a god, unlike her own. Naomi opened the door for Ruth to learn the agricultural practices of the Judean barley farmers, to figure out how to ingratiate herself with the local aristocracy who could help her resettle.

Ultimately, Naomi gave Ruth a good many gifts we who are mothers might want to give our daughters, or that we who are daughters might want to receive. Naomi gave Ruth the chance to break free, to be autonomous. In every way, Naomi made Ruth feel like a real daughter. She gave her responsibilities. She trusted her. She cared for Ruth and allowed Ruth to care for her. She brought her into her family, helping her get established.

With equal intensity, Ruth took steps to make herself into a real daughter. She went with Naomi to her homeland to learn more about who she was: her language, customs, and food. She engaged in the life of Naomi’s people, participating in their harvesting, even meeting the busybodies and giving them fodder for their gossip. Significantly, she embraced Naomi’s god. She tried to learn how Naomi experienced holiness, and she learned how to enter that particular holy circle with her.

Naomi and Ruth are not telling us to abandon our birth mothers and find chummier ones, more in synch with the trajectory of our lives, more capable of opening doors. They are not telling us to become unavailable to our daughters when their expectations of our patience and generosity are unrealistic.

What Naomi and Ruth teach us is that both mothers and daughters can leave off the relational patterns we have inherited and create them anew, taking into consideration the people that we have become and the experiences that have shaped us.

We are not stuck, as we might believe, with the contours of our current relationship with our mother or our daughter. We can renegotiate the ‘rules of engagement’ multiple times over the course of a lifetime. As daughters, we can find new parts of our mothers to cherish and fresh ways of seeing them as models. We can discover aspects of them that we will come to appreciate in different ways, especially as they need us more for their care. And we, too, can encourage our mothers to see us as being more competent than they have ever imagined.

As mothers, we can bid our daughters to relinquish the ways they used to see us and seek out those qualities we have that can lead them to bolder ways of being. We can help them to see that just as they keep changing and developing, we do too, and it would be worthwhile for us to encounter the people we are now, and not the ones frozen in memory.

The loyalty of Naomi and Ruth is not based on one terrific relationship that got sustained over years. So many things changed in both their lives, and they continued to evolve with each shock and reshuffling. They were there for each other; they renegotiated the terms of their relationship. They gave each other power, encouragement, the insights of youth and age, more possibilities than either could have had being alone in the world. They gave each other friendship…

(From Sarah Laughed by Vanessa L. Ochs)

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