“The World is Built upon Hesed” Reflections on Ruth
Rachel Adelman -Graduate of MaTaN’s Joan and Shael Bellows MA Program in Tanakh
Stories of mothers and daughters abound in literature and legends but there is only one story of a mother and daughter in the Tanakh, and that is the beautiful tale of Ruth and Naomi. Though Ruth is not Naomi’s daughter by birth, she is by spirit; the older woman consistently addresses her as biti (my daughter) over the course of the book. It is precisely because Ruth is not flesh-of-her-flesh, bone-of-her-bone, which makes this a story of Hesed. She goes well beyond the call of duty. Naomi tries to discourage her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, from following her to Beit Lehem; three times she tells them to turn back to the Land of Moav, and Orpah takes her advice, returning to her homeland to find a husband there, by whom she could have children. “But Ruth clung to her” (1:15). Ruth, named for loyal friendship, reut, swears on oath that she will never leave Naomi.
This is one of the most beautiful ‘love’ poems of the Tanakh: For wherever you go, I will go;Wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, And your God, my God.Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may G-d do to meIf anything but death parts me from you. (Ruth 4:16-17) And yet Naomi does not initially see the blessing that Ruth brings her, for she answers these words of love and loyalty with her own poem of rankled bitterness. Naomi was once a very wealthy woman, when she left with her husband and two sons during the famine. When she returns to Beit Lehem, she is widowed, bereft, and penniless; all her land has been sold. The women of the town do not even recognize her. “Is this Naomi”, they say. And she answers them:
Call me not Naomi, Call me Mara [bitter]For Shaddai has sorely embittered me. I went away full, and G-d has brought me back empty [reikam]. How can you call me Naomi? When G-d has humiliated me, When Shaddai has brought evil upon me! (Ruth 1:20-21)
She was named “Naomi” meaning ‘pleasantness’ (na’im), but she feels only the bitterness, Mara, of her lot. Her story would be the female equivalent to Job, if she did not have Ruth by her side. Little does she realize that this youngclinging woman would be better than seven sons to her (4:15); Ruth would bring about the return of her lands and give birth to a child, whom Naomi herself will nurse and mother (4:16-17). She will sweeten those bitter waters. The season bodes hope, for they return to the Land of Israel around the time of the barley harvest. The gift of her daughter-in-law finally dawns on Naomi when Ruth returns from the meeting with Boaz, after the night spent at the threshing floor. Before Ruth leaves at dawn, he asks her to hold out her shawl, “and he measured out six barleys [shesh se’orim].” (3:15). Was it six grains of barley or six bushels [se’in] of barley? The Talmud (TB Sanhedrin 93b) remarks that six bushels would be a lot for one woman to carry! Rashi comments, paraphrasing from the Midrash:
It was really six grains of barley, for Boaz was hinting to her that a son, who would be blessed with six blessings, was destined to descend from her. [The blessings are:] (Isa. 11:2): “a spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and heroism, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.” [An allusion to the King Messiah].
She carries away not only the promise of redemption for her mother-in-law, but the hope of Geula for the whole nation. When Ruth returns with the six grains of barley, Naomi asks a disturbing question, “Who are you my daughter (Mi at biti)?” (3:16). Just as Naomi was not recognized by the women of the town, is Ruth, now, not recognized? They did not recognize the older woman because she had become so impoverished. The surprise here is prompted by the inverse; Naomi cannot recognize the joy and the hope that Ruth now carries. Perhaps there is another way of parsing the question: “Are you now really my daughter? (Mi? At biti?)” Ruth answers her, supposedly quoting Boaz (though he never said these words): “He gave me these six measures of barley, saying to me, ‘Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty [reikam].'” (3:17). She is echoing back Naomi’s original lament, “I went away full, and G-d has brought me back empty [reikam]” (1:21). How little it takes to turn from despair to hope: six grains of barley. Sometimes we look at our daughters and we do not see the blessings they bring to us. For Naomi, it took a while for her to recognize this in her daughter-in-law. There were moments of surprise, perhaps even pleasure. Ruth enabled Naomi, who called herself Mara (bitter), to reclaim her namesake, na’im(sweetness, pleasure). She healed the bitter waters. I would like to bless you this Shavuot with the loving-kindness of Ruth and the ability to see the sweetness in your daughters, the vision which six grains of barley carry.