The Roots of Megillat Ruth: Lot and Avraham
By Dr. Yael Ziegler
FESTIVAL OF FREEDOM: ESSAYS ON PESAH AND THE HAGGADAH
by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
The Roots of Megillat Ruth:
biblical stories, the origins of Megillat Ruth derive from the book of
beginning of their story,
this point, the idyllic relationship between Avraham and
The very next
passage casts doubt upon
means of determining the appropriateness of
that despite his change of location,
And it was when God destroyed the cities of the plain, and God remembered
Avraham and he delivered Lot from the upheaval, when God overturned the
cities in which
If the people
of Sedom deserve to be destroyed, then
the opposite choice of
What are the
noteworthy desire to act with chesed,
Ultimately, the Torah prohibits Lots' descendants, Ammon and Moav, from marrying into the Jewish nation because of their stinginess:
or Moavite shall come into the community of God
because of the matter in which
they did not greet you with bread and water on your journey out of
The Consequences of Avrahams Behavior
Having chosen to maintain his separateness from the inhabitants of Canaan,
Avraham, in contrast to
The trait of chesed is central to the definition of the Jewish nation. As noted previously with regard to Ammonites and Moavites, anyone who bears the trait of unkindness is barred from entering the community of God. Indeed, Maimonides asserts that if one meets a Jew who bears the trait of cruelty, one should be suspicious of his ancestry:
Anyone who is cruel and does not exhibit compassion, we should [suspect him and attempt to] ascertain his lineage. (Hilkhot Matenot Aniyim 10:2)
Avraham chosen to integrate with the people of
Thus far, I
have tried to show that
remains distinct from the inhabitants of
The Book of Shoftim
The book of
Shoftim describes a period of progressive deterioration in Am Yisraels
history. The book opens with the failure of the Jewish nation to complete the
conquest of the land, a failure that affects their ability to create a society
based on its own distinctive values. Instead, they continue to live amongst the
Canaanites, assimilating their culture and values. A well-known
consequence of this decision is that
Unsurprisingly, as the book progresses, Am Yisrael begins to
resemble Ammon and Moav,
The book of
Shoftim draws to a shocking conclusion with the narrative of the
concubine who is raped by the townspeople of Givah (Shoftim 19). This
story of moral and sexual corruption is linguistically and thematically modeled
upon the narrative of Sedom and Amora. This indicates that
the Jewish nation has veered perilously far from the path of Avraham and is
instead following the path of
Ruth takes place
during the period of the Judges. In an upcoming shiur, we will see that
the minor characters in the background of Megillat Ruth act in accordance
with the above portrayal of the nation during this period. They are stingy and
sexually immoral, just as we would expect from anyone who functions during the
period of the Judges. Nevertheless,
Megillat Ruth will prove to be the solution to the disastrous situation
of the book of Shoftim. It provides Am Yisrael with a new
direction: generosity instead of miserly behavior, and morality in place of
indecency. I believe that it is Ruth who serves to guide the Jewish nation back
from the path of
opening chapter of the book of Ruth, Ruth and Orpah are compelled to
choose between the path of Avraham and the path of
Orpah and Ruth speak in one voice, insisting that they will accompany Naomi to
Orpahs choice, following Naomis strenuous attempts, appears to be a legitimate, even a reasonable, one. Therefore, it is somewhat unexpected that rabbinic sources sharply criticize Orpah for her actions. A midrash, which analyzes the etymology of Orpahs name, offers the following explanation:
The name of one was Orpah, for she turned the nape of her neck (haphkha oreph) to her mother-in-law. (Ruth Rabba 2:9)
Despite my initial resistance to this portrayal of Orpah, when viewed alongside Ruths fierce loyalty to Naomi, Orpahs actions appear in a more negative light. Furthermore, the name Orpah certainly may be related to the word oreph, the nape of one's neck, and when combined with the word haphakh, meaning to turn ones neck, it has the connotation of running away in a cowardly fashion. This midrashic etymology, then, offers a viable, if perhaps overly critical, portrayal of Orpah.
It is startling, therefore, that a gemara offers a second possible etymology of Orpah's name:
Why was she called Orpah? For everyone sodomized her (orpin ota) from behind. (Sota 42b)
This scathing critique of Orpahs character is very difficult to sustain. In fact, the Megilla offers no hint whatsoever of Orpah's promiscuity. Why does the midrash offer an etymology which does not cohere with any textual portrayal, when the first etymology is linguistically and thematically suitable?
Despite its lack of textual basis, the portrait of Orpah as a licentious woman emerges as the dominant portrait of her in the Midrash. She is described in several midrashim as a wanton, immoral, and promiscuous woman whose exploits include bestiality, sodomy, and indiscriminate, copious sexual activity.
The biblical portrayal of Orpah is profoundly different from the midrashic one. According to the simple meaning of the text, Orpah is a kind and virtuous woman. She even initially offers to accompany her mother-in-law, and cries when Naomi tries to send her away. It seems to me that in creating this image of Orpah as both a heartless and a licentious woman, these rabbinic sources are not commenting on Orpah, but on her choice.
decision to return to live in Moav, the spiritual heir of
Ruth, who stays with Naomi, is represented in rabbinic sources as the paradigm of kindness. This portrayal needs no further explanation because it is well-attested to in the actual biblical portrayal of Ruth. A more peculiar phenomenon is the rabbinic representation of Ruth as the model of modesty. Ruths modesty emerges in the midrashim in several different forms. She is depicted modestly bending down to pick up the sheaves of wheat in the field (Shabbat 113a). In another midrash, Ruth refrains from flirtation with the young men (Ruth Rabba 4:9). According to a midrash cited by Rashi (3:5), Ruth chooses to amend Naomis instructions to go to Boazs field dressed up and perfumed, lest someone suspect her of promiscuity. She prefers instead to dress and perfume herself only once she has arrived at the field (Tanhuma Behar 3).
This modest representation is not indicated anywhere in the Megilla itself. In fact, in a later shiur, we will examine the manner in which Ruth is portrayed as a woman who comes from a promiscuous culture and only gradually learns to integrate and adopt the modest norms of the Jewish culture.
Chazals portrayal of Ruth as kind and modest emerges as the diametrical opposite of their portrayal of Orpah, the cruel and immoral woman. This portrait of Ruth is based on her choice. By choosing to abandon Moav and join the nation of Avraham, Ruth becomes the paradigm of chesed and morality, having herself adopted the traits of Avraham and enabled her descendants to do the same.
to the far-reaching ramifications that Ruths choice has for her own definition
and that of her descendants, Ruths choice represents a historic correction, or
And Boaz answered and he said to her, It has surely been told to me all that you have done with your mother-in-law after your husband died, and you left your father (avikh) and your mother and the land of your birthplace (eretz moladteikh). (Ruth 2:11)
By using words reminiscent of Gods command to Avraham in Bereishit 12:1, Go from your land (artzekha), your birthplace (moladetkha) and the house of your father (beit avikha), Boaz acknowledges that Ruths decision to accompany Naomi is a return to the path of Avraham, which Ruths ancestor Lot chose to abandon.
This point is
further indicated by Ruths choice of words in declaring her unequivocal loyalty
to her mother-in-law.
And each man separated (vayiparedu) from his brother. (Bereishit 13:11)
of loyalty to Naomi concludes with the same word used to describe
I swear by God that only death will separate (yaphrid) between you and me. (Ruth 1:17)
In refusing separation and cleaving to Naomi, Ruth returns the
Finally, it is noteworthy that the keyword of
the first chapter in Megillat Ruth is the verb to
return (shuv), which appears twelve times. Naturally, this word modifies
Naomi, whose return to
And Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moavite, her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the fields of Moav. (Ruth 1:22)
Ruths return to
Ruth is not simply a personal role model for this movement away from the path of
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]
 Radak is particularly enthusiastic in his portrayal of Lot as Avrahams willing and able partner. He comments that the plural of the words describing Avrahams actions in Bereishit 13:5 (rakhashu and asu) points to a joint effort between Avraham and Lot. He also points out that the fact that Lot leaves his grandfather to accompany his uncle indicates that Lot particularly wants to be with Avraham. This, explains the Radak, is because Lot has learned belief in God from Avraham.
 The notion that left and right refers to the north and south is also indicated in Yechezkel 4:4-6. For a twist on this, see Yechezkel 16:46.
 This is highlighted in Bereishit 18, when Avrahams bid to save the Sedomites from Gods decree of destruction is thwarted by the inability to find even ten righteous inhabitants.
 Rashi, Bereishit 13:10.
 Radak, Bereishit 13:11.
 Avraham is an exemplary host, sitting at the entrance to his tent, seemingly waiting for guests to arrive (18:1). He runs to greet his guests, bows to the ground (18:2) and is deferential, referring to himself as "your servant" and to the guests as "my masters" (18:3). Finally, Avraham offers the guests water to wash their feet and gives them food (18:4-5). Lot acts in a similar, if not identical, manner. In Bereishit 19, we find Lot sitting at the entrance to the gate of Sedom, presumably waiting for guests (19:1). When Lot sees the angels, he rises to greet them and bows his face to the ground (19:2). Lot is likewise deferential, referring to himself as your servant and to his guests as my masters (19:2). Finally, Lot offers the angels water to wash their feet and gives them food (19:2-3).
 See, for example, Or HaChaim 19:1, 3 and Seforno 19:3.
 Note the words of the men of Sedom to Lot when he protests their attempt to harm his guests: Has one come to live and he dares to judge?! Now we will do more evil to you than to them! (Bereishit 19:9).
 Undoubtedly, the narrative implies that Lots favorable actions contribute to his salvation. Nevertheless, the verse explicitly credits Avraham with Lots salvation.
 This does not contradict the designation of Avraham by God as father of many nations (Bereishit 17:5). Avrahams universal role does not mean integration into the surrounding nations. This is especially true regarding the inhabitants of Canaan, whose sinfulness has sealed their fate (Bereishit 15:16).
 The prophet Tzephania (2:9) appears to acknowledge this when he prophesies the destruction of Moav and Ammon: Therefore I swear, says God, that Moav will be like Sedom and the children of Ammon shall be like Amora: clumps of weeds and patches of salt, and desolation forever.
 Note the description of Am Yisrael living amongst the Canaanites in the first chapter of the book of Shoftim (e.g. 1:27, 29, 30). See especially the formulation in 1:32, which describes Asher dwelling in the midst of the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land.
 Due to the space constraints of this shiur, I have made do with just a few examples. There are many other intriguing contrasts to the persona and acts of Avraham in the book of Shoftim. Yiftach, for example, seems to consciously model himself after Avraham in his sacrifice of his daughter, a bid that only draws attention to the ironic contrast between them. I maintain that there are numerous intriguing parallels between Gidon and Avraham which intimate the negative manner in which Gidon veers sharply from Avrahams path (compare, for example, Bereishit 19:32 with Shoftim 6:39). This topic should be properly examined within the context of a shiur on the book of Shoftim.
 Rashi explicitly notes that the inhabitants of Sukkot were Jewish; see also Yehoshua 13:27. Penuel seems to be the place named by Yaakov after his encounter with the angel in Bereishit 32:30-31. There is no evidence as to whether its inhabitants were Jewish, except that the events which occur in Penuel are equated with those which occur in Sukkot.
 It is interesting that Sukkot and Penuel are Transjordanian cities, located in close proximity to Ammon and Moav.
 I have already noted the parallel between the story of the depravity of Sedom (Bereishit 19) and that of the tribe of Binyamin (Shoftim 19) in shiur #2. As mentioned there (in footnote 19), the numerous parallels between these stories have been noted at length by multiple exegetes and scholars and are immediately evident to anyone who encounters these stories.
 There are numerous compelling indications that suggest that this story in particular represents the perversion of Avraham in the book of Shoftim. Although it is beyond the scope of this shiur to properly examine them, I will cite one compelling parallel. The dismemberment of the concubine is accomplished using a maakhelet, a knife (Shoftim 19:29). This word appears in only one other narrative in the Bible that of the sacrifice of Yitzchak (Bereishit 22:10). There is little doubt that the parallel is intended to underscore the ironic contrast between the two narratives.
 This seems to be the general atmosphere which reigns in Bethlehem as the backdrop of this narrative. In shiur #6, we will see that some midrashim perceive Naomis own family in this fashion, despite the lack of explicit textual evidence for this. Some midrashim actually compare Machlon and Khilyon to Sedom and Amora, as well as to Ammon and Moav.
 Chazal propose etymological explanations of names in a bid to offer insights into the essence of a persons character.
 See, for example, Yehoshua 7:8.
 See, for example, Ruth Zuta 1; Rashis commentary on I Shemuel 17:23.
 Avrahams initial suggestion in response to the friction between the shepherds likewise employs this root: Please separate from me (hipared na me-alai) (Bereishit 13:9).