| Family First Feature |

Is That Naomi?

Bereft of her husband, children, and wealth, Naomi returned to rebuild a nation


Elimelech returned home, his face troubled, and sat down heavily on the sofa. A servant hurried to bring him a drink.

Naomi sat down opposite him. “What’s wrong?”

“What a generation we live in, where people judge the judges!” Elimelech’s eyes blazed. “I’ve just come from the town square, where I tried to deliver some much-needed tochachah. Not only did they pay no attention, they heckled and laughed… such chutzpah. I saw Menasheh there and told him it would be fitting for him to give some of his money to Torah scholars, and he just laughed and yelled, “Practice what you preach, Elimelech!”

Naomi shifted uncomfortably.

At this moment the couple’s two sons, Machlon and Chilion, entered the room.

“What do you care what the people say?” Machlon interjected. “They’re just jealous of us, they always have been. We’re from Shevet Yehudah and direct descendants of Nachshon ben Aminadav. They’re jealous of our wealth and prominence, and they’re jealous that mother is one of the 22 great and righteous women of our nation. They’re jealous of the 30 virtues Hashem has showered on us, 30 virtues that make you worthy of kingship.”

“It’s true, my son.” Elimelech nodded. “Even my name shows it — Eli-Melech. The kingship will come to me.”

The next day, Elimelech returned to the city gates. “O Jews!” he called out. “The famine is at our doorstep! We must repent fully, or a great famine will descend upon us; our present prosperity will be forgotten!

“You cannot escape your punishment,” Elimelech admonished them. “Return to Hashem and repent!”

The day before, his rebukes had been met with no worse than laughter and jeers; this time some of the younger people in the crowd advanced toward him, swinging their arms.

“We beat the rest of the judges!” one wild-eyed teen screamed with fury. “We can beat you too!”

“What are you worrying us about, a drought? A famine? Seems to me that you have enough to feed all of us for ten years,” jeered another. “Elimelech, don’t think you can scare us with threats of drought. If there’s a famine, you’ll open your grain warehouses to feed the masses. What else makes you a zakein and gadol hador?”

“He’s right.” Murmurs of assent were heard throughout the crowd.

Elimelech returned home, pensive. He spent the rest of the day in his room, deep in thought. Then he entered the parlor and called his children and Naomi. “Listen to me carefully.” He paused and sighed heavily. “I’ve thought long and hard about what I’m about to say, and there’s no other way. We’re leaving Eretz Yehudah.”

His words seemed to suck the air out of the room.


“How can we leave our beloved country for a foreign land?” Naomi was in shock.

“But Father, you have to understand, Machlon and I have a responsibility as community leaders,” Chilion spoke quietly. “To be honest, Father, you have the same responsibility.”

“That’s exactly why I’m leaving,” Elimelech exploded, “because of my responsibility! The people think that my wealth will save them, but if they don’t return to the Torah, the famine will worsen and my money will run out! The drought won’t stop until they do teshuvah, but my presence — or more likely, my wealth — have made them complacent.

“Look,” Elimelech turned to face his sons, “I’m one of the leaders of the generation. And I haven’t been able to convince the people to do teshuvah. If I leave, they’ll be forced to cast their eyes upward for help, they’ll finally understand that they have no one to rely on but their Father in Heaven. I have no choice.”

“So, just like that, you’ll leave a place of Torah, you’ll leave all of your friends from the Sanhedrin?” Machlon said in disbelief.

“It’s only temporary.” Elimelech held out his hands. “We’ll go to the fields of Moav, not the great city — I don’t want to live amid the impurity and licentiousness of the Moavites. We’ll stay in the fields and wait for Am Yisrael to understand its error and return to its ways.”

“It won’t look good,” Naomi insisted. “A public servant can’t just run away.”

“I’m not running away,” Elimelech explained. “It’s for their good. What’s the point of spending all our money to feed a people that doesn’t acknowledge the Creator? They scorn the gedolei hador, but when the famine comes, everyone will come knocking on my door, begging for money or bread. I’m not interested in being here with Hashem’s justice hanging over our heads.”

“Do you think you can really escape Hashem’s justice?” Naomi asked quietly.

Elimelech met her gaze. “I’ll conceal myself. I’m just an individual — if I leave, I will skip the din rabim, the punishment of the tzibbur.”

“But you’re a public servant, not a private individual! Your account with Hashem isn’t a private one, but tied in with that of your people. You won’t be able to escape Hashem’s justice.”

Elimelech remained silent.

Elimelech looked around hurriedly, quickly sizing up the situation. “Call a handmaiden!” he commanded.

A young woman hurried up to him.

“Go to market and take a coffer,” he told her. “Stand with it in the crossroads, and raise money for your master Elimelech.”

She looked at him in confusion. Begging? For her wealthy master?

“Go now!”

She left the palace and hurried to the public thoroughfare, where she stood there rattling the container. “Please, kind people,” she called. “Give me coins for Elimelech and his household.”

Within seconds, a crowd had gathered round her, troubled and confused.

“Elimelech, collecting? What happened to all his money?”

“We were counting on him! What will we do now?”

The scene had filled its observers with doubt; the looming famine suddenly felt all too real. Yet Elimelech’s hopes were not realized — while the people began to feel uneasy, they did not repent.

“You were mistaken,” the other members of the Sanhedrin explained to Elimelech. “Look at Avraham Avinu and the way he spread the word of Hashem. First, he showed kindness; only afterward did he tell people the truth. First, he brought guests into his home, then he spoke to them about the word of G-d.

“As the pasuk says, “Chesed ve’emes yekadmu Fanaecha — kindness and truth precede Your Countenance.” And in the Yud Gimmel Middos as well it says, “v’rav chesed v’emes.” Emes must come second.

“Listen to us, Elimelech, now is the time to turn the people’s hearts back to their G-d. Take advantage of their need for you, give them money and food with love and care, and then their hearts will be opened to your tochachah, for they will have seen that you wish nothing but their good. And then they’ll do teshuvah and the famine will end.”

But Elimelech would not hear their counsel — he had already despaired of the people and had even come to hate them.

“We’re leaving,” Elimelech announced to his household. “If I provide for my people, and give them my wealth and possessions, it will not help. I’m responsible only for my children and for you, my beloved wife. And you are expecting — we cannot care for you in the middle of this famine.”

“The Torah will preserve the soul of its possessor and not the vanities of This World,” said Naomi, but her words fell on deaf ears.

Despite her opposition, and that of his sons, Elimelech began preparing for the move.

One dusty morning not long afterward, a large convoy set out from Beis Lechem to the fields of Moav. It consisted of a long procession of camels, dozens of servants, and large chests carrying all manner of worldly goods, expensive fabrics, and rare jewels.

On the carriages sat Naomi and Elimelech, accompanied by Machlon and Chilion and their daughters.

“He who leaves the land shall be punished,” Naomi fretted. “You should have warned Bnei Yisrael to stop sinning, you should have given tzedakah freely without worrying about your own money. How can you abandon your people?” But nothing she said could change her husband’s mind.

As Elimelech predicted, his departure awakened great consternation in Eretz Yehudah; the significance of his decision made a great impression upon the Jews he left behind.

Elimelech’s family settled in the fields of Moav, far away from the impure cities of the Moavites. As it was, the people showed them no hospitality — just as Elimelech had been miserly to his own people.

Shortly after they arrived, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi a widow. As she sat shivah for her husband, Naomi wept. “Fortunate is the one who can maintain his good name until his death. Look at my husband! Everyone knew him, he was the gadol hador, a zakein. And now he has died alone in a strange land, with no one to mourn him but his wife.”

Naomi hoped that Elimelech’s death would cause her sons to return to Eretz Yehudah, but she was soon disabused of that notion. Disappointed, she rebuked them: “You were brought here against your will,” she said. “But if you fail to return to your country now that you have the chance, the blame will be yours.”

Time passed, and Elimelech’s sons received a marriage offer: the daughters of the king of Moav, the princesses Rus and Orpah. It was a tempting match. Machlon and Chilion decided to accept the offer, but only on condition that their brides converted.

Naomi was very close with her sons, often joking with them as if they were still children; they in turn returned her love and admiration. But when she heard of the match, Naomi could not contain herself. “This is absurd!” she cried. “They’re obviously only converting for the sake of marriage — the whole conversion will be invalid! And besides, we know that ‘lo yavo amoni oh moavi b’kahal Hashem — no Amoni or Moavite can enter the congregation of Hashem.’ ”

Machlon and Chilion ignored her; the allure of marrying into royalty was too great.

“So that’s how it starts,” Naomi said bitterly. “First you leave the Eretz Hakodesh and then you marry gentiles. Did you learn nothing from your father’s death? HaKadosh Baruch Hu repaid him in an instant! And you know very well that no punishment is as harsh as that of an erring judge — his whole household and all of his sons are punished along with him.”

But she could not sway her sons. Rus and Orpah converted and were married. Naomi loved her daughters-in-law but could not regard them as Jews. Time passed, but neither Rus nor Orpah had children. At the same time, Machlon and Chilion lost all their money. The desperation and stress led them to begin quarrelling with one another.

“You’ve lost your money, you’ve lost your good name,” Naomi pleaded. “Please, return to your land before Hashem takes your lives as well!” But her entreaties were in vain.

Ten years had passed since Elimelech and his family had left the land of Yehudah. One day, suddenly, both Machlon and Chilion both died. Naomi was left with nothing. She was bereft of her husband, her money, her standing — and now, her children.

After the shivah, Naomi heard the news — the famine in Eretz Yehuda had ended! Naomi left her tent, broken, carrying a small ration of bread and water. Her daughters-in-law hurried up to inquire about her welfare.

“How do you expect me to feel? It’s true that you lost your husbands, but my grief is still greater than yours. Ever since we came to the fields of Moav, I’ve lost everything that was dear to me — my pregnancy, my wealth, my husband, my children! I have nothing left, nothing. And now that I’ve heard that the famine in my land has finished, I wish to return to my country.”

“No,” Rus and Orpah argued. “We love you — we won’t let you return alone.” At noon the three women — widowed, impoverished, bereft — set off together.

Suddenly Naomi came to a halt. She looked at her daughters-in-law. “Stop here, my daughters, there’s no reason for you to continue onward with me. I have nothing, I’m old and broken, but you are still young! You can return to your father’s house, marry, and have children. Return to your father’s palace, my children, leave behind my grief and bitterness and the curse that is upon my house. Go to a brighter future.” She kissed her daughters farewell — a kiss that imparted a spirit of holiness. Rus was touched with the kedushah while Orpah was unaffected.

“What are you talking about? Of course we’re coming with you!” Rus insisted.

“Please, let us come with you,” Orpah added. “We’ll take care of you.”

The women continued to argue, their words threaded with warmth and caring, but Naomi was unyielding. After a while, Orpah relented. She saw the truth of Naomi’s words — why should she return to a life of poverty and loneliness?

Rus persisted.

“No one in Yehudah will recognize you as a Jew.” Naomi looked her daughter-in-law in the eye and spoke honestly. “And in Yehudah, you’ll find there are tremendous class divides. There are ten markets in Jerusalem, and there’s no mixing between the royal market and that of the Kohanim, or between the Leviim and Yisraelim. The castes are easily distinguishable by their clothing. Which one will you belong to?”

Rus shook her head.

“You’ll be in constant danger! You won’t be able to leave my side for even one moment for fear of being hurt,” Naomi warned her — trying to dissuade her three times from converting, as required by hilchos giyur.

Rus stayed firm.

“Why should you come with me?” Naomi asked. “I’m too old to have more sons — and even if I could, the mitzvah of yibum wouldn’t apply to you, because you’re not recognized as Jews by halachah. You’re free! Leave me! I’m so sorry, my daughters, I’m so sorry!” Naomi burst into tears, and Rus and Orpah wept with her.

Orpah then bent over and kissed her mother-in-law goodbye. Then, sadly, she turned and left.

“Please, Rus, leave me,” Naomi begged.

“Please don’t send me away, don’t make me return to Moav!” There were tears streaming down Rus’s face. “What if the whole purpose of your exile in Moav was to save me from this impurity? And now you can trust my loyalty. I’m not following you for your wealth or the promise of marriage — you can’t offer me either of those. I want a part of your poverty and bitterness, I want the G-d of Israel even in hardship and grief. Your people are my people, and your G-d is my G-d.”

Naomi looked at her through blurred eyes. She recognized the sincerity in her daughter-in-law’s eyes. Rus understood what a hard life awaited her, yet she was choosing it with strength and courage, with pride and a raised head. Naomi nodded in approval. There was no need for words.

Orpah walked through the dry fields toward her father’s palace, toward a place of pleasure and permissiveness, while Naomi and Rus walked up the hill hand in hand in the direction of Eretz Yehudah. They walked side by side, barefoot, wearing nothing but rags on their backs, their souls firmly bound together.

Naomi walked swiftly, urging her daughter-in-law along the dusty roads. They didn’t stop to rest or take breaks. The destination was clear — Eretz Yehudah!

Rus looked at her mother-in-law with admiration. She was clothed in tatters; her suffering had taken its toll on her appearance. Yet she carried herself proudly, with dignified humility.

On the eve of the 17th of Nissan, Naomi and Rus saw Beis Lechem in the distance. Naomi stopped. She drew in her breath. It had been ten years since she’d left Beis Lechem… and how much had changed.

In a nearby field, a cluster of women noticed the two travelers and stopped their work to stare. What was going on? Two women traveling alone? That was unheard of! Soon, the whole city began to wonder about the unknown travelers.

“Do you recognize them?” one woman asked.

Her friend squinted. “I don’t know who the young one is, but the older one… Am I imagining things, or is that Naomi?”

The first burst into laughter. “I knew Naomi! That old lady looks nothing like her.”

“I’m not sure either,” another chimed in. “They’re too far off.”

Several minutes passed. The crowd of inquisitive women grew.

“Am I seeing things, or is that Naomi?” cried one eagle-eyed woman. “When she left for the fields of Moav she was followed by an army of handmaidens riding camels and wearing richly embroidered robes! Look at this woman — she’s barefoot and dressed in rags!”

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing.” An older woman rubbed her eyes in disbelief. “Is that Naomi whose jewels we once used? Is that the Naomi whose beauty put gold to shame?”

The women drew closer, and the shocked crowd realized that it was indeed their Naomi.

“Who’s the young one with you?” A girl nodded her head in Rus’s direction.

Naomi reached out and took Rus’s hand firmly in hers. “This is Rus, my daughter-in-law.” A hush fell on the crowd.

“Rus… the Moavite?” one woman finally asked.

Naomi nodded. The crowd stilled. Everyone well remembered the upheaval and rumors that had swirled when the son of the gadol hador had married into Moavi royalty.

“What’s a Moavis princess looking for in Eretz Yehudah?” the woman spat out suspiciously. “Why would this young woman leave her father’s house, a palace, and come to live alone and impoverished in Eretz Yehudah with her mother-in-law?”

“And think! The same day Boaz’s wife dies, she comes along,” whispered another.

The other women gathered close to Naomi, their eyes reflecting their pity.

“Oh, beloved Naomi,” one woman said as she stroked her cheek, “what happened to you?”

“Yes,” another said sadly. “You used to wear shoes, and now you’re barefoot. You used to be clad in royal garments, and now you’re wearing rags. Your face used to bloom with health, now it’s haggard with hunger.”

Naomi listened to their questions in silence and then looked up to answer them with a sober glance: “My friends, do not call me Naomi, pleasant one. Call me Mara — the embittered one. Bitter I was, and bitter I remain. I left for Moav ten years ago with my children, expecting, and now justice has afflicted me. My grief has so aged me that you barely recognized me!

“Look at me closely, look at the tale told by my face. It is one of endless blows rained on me by Hashem. I’m alone. A widow, a bereaved mother… a beggar. I have nothing and no one except for my daughter Rus. Rus took mercy on me and accompanied me, even though she’s still young, only 40, and could still hope to have a family.”

The women nodded in understanding — and pity.

Rus looked around the street, not understanding the commotion around her. “What’s going on? It looks like the whole city is assembling.”

Her mother-in-law nodded. “It’s not an assembly, daughter. I heard the women talking — they’ve all gathered for the funeral of the wife of Boaz, the gadol hador. Eishes chaver k’chaver — the respect due a talmid chacham is due to his wife as well. It’s no wonder the entire city is turning out to pay her their final respects.”

“Who is Boaz?” Rus asked curiously.

“He’s my relative,” Naomi explained. “The nephew of Elimelech and my cousin. He’s a great talmid chacham, but he’s endured so much suffering in his life. He had 30 sons and 30 daughters, and they all died. Now he’s 80 — and childless.” Naomi sighed mournfully.

Rus nodded sadly. Then the two women turned homeward.

Three months passed. One day, Naomi sent Rus to glean among the ears of grain set aside for the poor. This was not an easy task for Rus. Born a princess, she needed to overcome her embarrassment and go out to gather the sheaves left for beggars to help her mother-in-law in her hour of need.

But Rus remained silent. She didn’t tell Naomi, “You gather grain for me, the daughter of kings,” as others may have in her place. Nor did she even say, “We’ll go together.” Acutely feeling Naomi’s humiliation, she agreed to go gather the grain without further elaboration

Rus walked with a swift and determined step, ignoring the jeers and insults flung her way, and headed toward the field of their relative Boaz, hoping that, there, she would be left in peace. The field was filled with other harvesters, but Rus spoke with no one.

Shortly afterward, Boaz himself arrived in the field. This was an unusual occurrence and an example of Hashem’s chesed — as one of the leaders of the generation, Boaz never involved himself in the matters of the harvest. Rus’s modesty caught his attention. She was treated so poorly, yet Boaz instantly recognized her nobility and kindness.

“Whose girl is that?” he asked.

“She is a Moavi girl who came back with Naomi from Moav,” his servant answered.

“Listen to me, my daughter,” Boaz addressed Rus kindly. He saw the derisive manner in which others were treating her and felt bad for the woman. He resolved to treat her in a caring manner, even before he could clarify her halachic status as a Jew. “Don’t go to glean in another field — stay here.”

Rus returned home to Naomi, arms laden with grain.

“Where did you go today?” Naomi asked her. “May the one who was so generous be blessed!”

Rus told her that she had been in Boaz’s field.

“Blessed is Hashem,” Naomi said emotionally, “Who does not fail in His kindness to the living or to the dead.” She went on to explain that Boaz was a yevam of Machlon — and that through him, Rus could thus reestablish the house of Elimelech. Naomi carefully explained to Rus what to do.

Rus followed Naomi’s advice and went down to the threshing floor.

Boaz, who recognized Rus’s chesed in leaving a royal house to cleave to Naomi despite the uncertain future, wondered if he could take her as a wife — after all, she was a Moavite. “It was just a few days ago that we debated this in the beis medrash,” the sages told him. “We reached the psak that only a Moavi man, and not a Moavis woman, is banned from entering Hashem’s congregation.”

Boaz went to the Sanhedrin sitting at the gate and asked to take Rus as his wife. The marriage was confirmed in the presence of witnesses k’das Moshe v’Yisrael, and the two received the brachos of tzaddikei hador. From all sides, blessings were showered on their heads.

Boaz was 80 and no longer able to have children, but because Naomi prayed for him, he instantly became fertile. Rus, too, was barren — but the blessings of tzaddikim gave her the ability to bear children.

Just one day later, Boaz died. Rus was once again a widow. Rus was shattered by his death — but she carried Boaz’s child in her womb.

Nine months passed, and Rus welcomed a child. A baby boy.

The women attending her threw their hands in the air with joy. The line of Yehudah would be saved, after all! At last, Hashem was doing chesed with Naomi! They blessed Hashem for providing Naomi with support in her old age.

Yet Rus did not join in their rejoicing. A veil of sadness had descended on her since Boaz’s death.

The women realized that Rus was too broken to care for her infant. One woman lifted the baby from Rus, then placed him in Naomi’s arms. “Behold your son, Naomi!” she cried, knowing that Naomi would raise the child and thus deserved to be called his mother. “May he be a joy and an everlasting source of happiness to you, and may you merit a place in Olam Haba through him. See what a miracle Hashem has done — He has even given you the ability to nurse him! What are you afraid of? Blessed is Hashem Who has not left you without a redeemer to rebuild your family line! And your daughter loves you greatly — she is better for you than seven sons.”

Naomi heard their words of consolation and rejoiced in the kindness Hashem had done her. “Give him a name,” the women told Rus, but she refused, saying that the honor should go to Naomi.

But Naomi also refused to name him. “How can I decide if I should name him Boaz, after his father, or after my son Machlon?”

“If so,” the women decided, “we’ll name him ourselves. We’ll call him Oved after his father who was an oved Elokim, and after his mother who cleaved to her G-d. May Hashem help that the child may grow to serve Him with all his strength.”

And Oved was the father of Yishai, and Yishai was the father of David, the sweet singer of Yisrael.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 742)

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