Naomi: The Wife of Elimelekh
By Dr. Yael Ziegler
Naomi: The Wife of Elimelekh
We previously examined a range of approaches pinpointing the sins of Elimelekh and his sons. Their early disappearance from the story seems to indicate that they are unworthy of taking part in the formation of monarchy, toward which the Megilla aspires. There is, however, one figure from the house of Elimelekh who continues to function as a prominent character in the book, and that is Naomi. She is the primary figure of the first chapter; her decisions, state of mind, and interactions lie at its core.
shiur, I will begin by focusing on Naomis character. Does Naomi share
responsibility for the familys departure to Moav? Does the fact that she
remains alive indicate her worthiness? I will then examine the manner in which
the text describes Naomis return to
Sin in Leaving
Rashi offers textual proof that Naomi bears no responsibility whatsoever for her familys move to Moav during the famine:
And it says, [Elimelekh,] the husband of Naomi, [died,] in other words, since he was Naomis husband and had control over her and she was secondary to him, divine justice struck him and not her. (Rashi, Ruth 1:3)
the people of
Some less-known midrashim do not exonerate Naomi at all, suggesting that she is just as culpable as the rest of her family:
Why did the text decree against him, his wife and his sons? Because they failed to prevent one another from acting on the stinginess that they all possessed. When a man wants [to sin] and his wife and sons do not want this, or the opposite, the decree is withdrawn. But when there is no one to prevent the other [from sinning,] the decree strikes them. (Yalkut Shimoni, Ruth, 599)
At first their horses, camels, and donkeys died. Afterwards he died, as it says, Elimelekh, the husband of Naomi, died. Afterwards the two sons died, And the two of them also died, Machlon and Khilyon. And afterwards, she died. (Pesikta De-Rav Kahana 17:6)
The fact that Naomi did not die in the introductory passage does not mean that she was not punished. After all, the text describes Naomi as alone, destitute, and embittered. A midrash indicates that Naomis destitute state should also be seen as divine retribution:
I left full From here we find that she had been rich and full. And what caused her to lose her possessions and to become bereft of her husband and sons? Because of the stinginess that [the family] possessed. (Ruth Zuta 1)
Indeed, Naomi herself regards her situation as a sentence handed down from God, as she states several times:
For Gods hand has gone out against me. (1:13)
For God has embittered me greatly. (1:20)
God has done evil to me. (1:21)
How can we
reconcile these conflicting approaches? Is Naomi so uninvolved in the familys
decisions that she has no role in the familys departure from
Synonyms: Gur, Yashav, Haya
A brief examination of the verbs employed in the beginning of the Megilla may be instructive in answering the above questions. Three different verbs are used to denote the familys stay in Moav: gur, yashav, haya. Each of these verbs connotes a different type of stay. Yashav, meaning both to sit and to dwell, implies permanent settlement. Etymologically similar to the word, ger, meaning stranger, the word gur suggests a temporary sojourn. Haya conveys human existence. When used to refer to a persons settlement in a particular place, it can connote a passive stay, sometimes even against ones will, due to external factors beyond ones control.
And a man
opens with a man taking his family on a journey to Moav,
la-gur, to live there temporarily. Presumably, Elimelekh intends to
stay in Moav only for the duration of the famine, at which time he means to
And what of Naomi herself? The death of her sons as well as the news that the
famine has ceased precipitates her immediate return to
And she left the place where she was, asher hayeta shama. (Ruth 1:7)
haya, used to
describe Naomis sojourn in Moav, implies that Naomi simply existed there. She
was there passively, compelled to stay there by external factors beyond her
control (the famine and her sons marriage and permanent residence). The textual
analysis of the verbs allows us to infer that Naomi never integrated into Moav,
never intended to remain there, and probably was not involved in the original
decision to leave
And she and her daughters-in-law arose, and she returned from the fields of
Moav, for she heard in the fields of Moav that God had remembered His people to
give them bread. And she departed from the place where she had been, and her two
daughters-in-law with her, and they walked on the road to return to the
Naomis decision to return to
Nevertheless, we should note carefully the description of the
report which motivates Naomis return. It is Gods role which is emphasized more
than the bread. She hears, first and perhaps primarily, that God remembered
His people, and only afterwards does she register to give them bread. The word employed
to denote God remembering, pakad, is used often to depict Gods direct
interactions with His people, both to punish and to reward. The possessive
form utilized to depict Gods people, ammo, likewise conveys an engaged
God, one who is acting because of His relationship with His nation. Thus,
it does not appear that Naomis primary motivation is the practical
consideration but rather the theological one. Naomi returns to
This textual portrayal of Naomi is consistent with the rabbinic presentation of Naomi as a deeply pious character, often motivated by religious considerations:
And Ruth said, Do not harm me [by requiring me] to depart from you, to return from following you. What does she mean by Do not harm me? ... [Ruth said,] In any case, my intention is to convert, and it is better to do so with your help and not with someone elses [assistance]. When Naomi heard this, she immediately began to present to her the laws of converts. (Ruth Rabba 2:22)
There were twenty-three pious and greatly righteous women in
A Repetitive Description
The two verses that describe Naomis departure from Moav are strikingly repetitive. Indeed, these two verses contain four verbs: va-takom, va-tashov, va-tetzei, and va-telakhna, each of which would have been sufficient on its own to convey Naomis departure. A midrash poses a different question regarding the need to describe Naomis departure at all:
And she departed from the place where she had been And she departed: Is
she, then, the only one who departed from there? ... R. Azaria in the name of R.
Yehuda in the name of
Why, indeed, is it necessary to state at all that Naomi
departed from the city? It would have been sufficient simply to depict Naomis
Rashi adapts this midrash to address the verses repetitiveness:
And she left the place Why does it say this?
It has already stated, And she returned from the field of Moav. And from where
would she return if not from the place where she had been? Rather, it teaches
that the departure of a righteous person from a place is noteworthy and makes an
The citys radiance, splendor and praise departed. Similarly (Bereishit
28), And Yaakov departed from Beer
I would like to add a literary point to this discussion. Often, repeated verbs connote eagerness and excitement, a zealous enthusiasm that accompanies ones actions. One can certainly imagine the excited anticipation that must have accompanied Naomis decision to depart the plains of Moav. As noted previously, the verb modifying Naomis sojourn in Moav indicates that she was not there of her own volition. Drawn after her husbands decision and constrained by circumstances beyond her control, Naomi must have been keen to return to her hometown.
Nevertheless, in a deft display of literary ambiguity, the profusion of verbs depicting Naomis departure can, in fact, convey the exact opposite idea. These verbs, which repeatedly describe Naomis departure from the fields of Moav, may actually indicate how difficult it was for Naomi to leave Moav! The numerous verbs can imply that each time Naomi took a step to leave, she withdrew back to the city, only to gather her strength again in an attempt to depart. One could paraphrase the verbs in the story in the following manner:
And she got up [but then she sat down again]. And she returned from the fields of Moav [but then she went back]. And she departed from the place [only to return to it]. And she went on the road
This literary ambiguity is an exquisite
presentation of the complex feelings that must have accompanied Naomis journey
In order to support this reading, we will turn to the other biblical example of unusually repeated verbs of departure, cited both by a midrash and Rashi. When Yaakov left his father to go to Charan, his departure is presented several times, using repetitive verbs:
And Yitzchak sent Yaakov and he went to Paddan
Both the midrash and Rashi draw an analogy
between Yaakovs repeated departure and Naomis repetitive departure, citing an
identical idea in explanation of both cases: a righteous persons departure
makes an impression upon the city. Notwithstanding this approach, it seems to me
that a similar ambiguity may also be present in the story of Yaakovs departure
from Beer Sheva, as noted above. Indeed, Yaakovs eagerness to leave requires no
explanation. Esav is enraged and dangerous. Yaakov must flee for his life
swiftly and unhesitatingly if he wishes to survive. And yet, how can Yaakov not
hesitate? The duration of his journey is indefinite (until your brothers anger
and he may never again return to his homeland or see his parents.
Moreover, he cannot be certain that his eviction from the
In this shiur, we have offered a preliminary examination of the
complexity of Naomis character. From the introductory verses, it is not clear
whether Naomi should be judged harshly or not for the familys presumed
misconduct in departing the land. Later verses that describe her eventual return
It seems to me that the ambiguities surrounding Naomis persona make her the most intriguing character in the Megilla. I would like to propose that we view Naomi as a mirror of the Jewish nation at this time. Determining the nations culpability during the period of the Judges is as difficult as determining Naomis. Who is actually responsible for the deterioration in the book of Shofetim? Is the guilt confined to the perpetrators of the horrors as designated by the narrative, or is the narrative pointing to a widespread societal malaise? In fact, life is rarely as simple as proclaiming someone guilty or innocent. It is possible that the nation at the time of the Judges should be judged severely and that they should have assumed responsibility for societys downward spiral. However, it is equally likely that most of the nation remained outside the fray and simply perceived themselves as helpless and hopeless. The complexities inherent within Naomis character evince that of the nation, just as Naomis bitter state recalls the nations bleak situation.
On a concluding hopeful note, we will find that the successful bid to rebuild Naomis family, restore her name, and provide her with continuity, will concurrently result in the rebuilding of the nation of Israel and the restoration of their identity and stability.
This series of shiurim is dedicated to the memory of my mother Naomi Ruth zl bat Aharon Simcha, a woman defined by Naomis unwavering commitment to family and continuity, and Ruths selflessness and kindness.
I welcome all comments and questions: [email protected]
 While this version appears in Pesikta De-Rav Kahana, others versions of this same midrash (Vayikra Rabba 17:4; Ruth Rabba 2:10) omit this last line, which suggests that Naomis eventual death is part of the familys punishment. Omitting this line is certainly logical, given that Naomi seems to have died many years later. Another version of this midrash concludes, And the woman was left, Naomi had become residual surplus (Ruth Rabba 2). This renders a more accurate depiction of Naomis punishment.
 E.g. Bereishit 36:8; 50:22.
 See, for example, Bereishit 12:10. See also Bereishit 47:4 and Devarim 26:5, and the subsequent citation in the Haggada: This teaches us that Yaakov did not go down to integrate himself in Egypt, but rather simply to live there (la-gur sham). See the Keli Yakar on Bereishit 47:27, who comments similarly on the difference between the word gur and yashav.
 See, for example, Bereishit 40:4, in which people dwelling in prison are described as being there (va-yiheyu sham).
 Based on
 I will briefly note here that this is Gods first appearance in the book, one which depicts Him actively engaged in the nations affairs. I will return to this point when we later examine the nature of Gods role in the book.
 Examples of the different usages of this verb abound. For punitive usages, see, e.g., Shemot 20:4; Vayikra 18:25; I Shmuel 15:2; Yeshayahu 10:12; Yirmiyahu 5:9; 14:10. For Gods reward, see, e.g,. Bereishit 21:1; 50:24; I Shmuel 2:21. For a greatly expanded list of the different uses of the word pakad, see Pesikta De-Rav Kahana (Ish Shalom ed.), 42.
 See the Malbim on Ruth 1:6, who makes this point explicitly.
 Notable examples of this phenomenon appear in Bereishit 25:34 and I Shmuel 17:48-51.
 Bereishit 27:44.
 Although the text never tells us when Rivka died, it does not appear that Yaakov ever sees his mother again, thereby justifying his natural hesitation.
 This conclusion is supported by the fact that Avraham bestowed the inheritance upon only one of his sons, consequently expelling the other from his home (Bereishit 21:10).