August 7, 2018

Hugging is better than kissing (Shavuot)

There are a number of reasons given as to why Megillat Rut is read on Shavuot.  For example, the Yalkut Shimoni explains that we read Megillat Ruth on Shavuot to teach us that the only way that Torah can become a meaningful part of our lives is through suffering as experienced by Ruth. Others such as the Avudraham explain that Megillat Ruth is read at Shavuot because the story took place during the time of the barley harvest and this period is also the time of Shavuot. While the Sha’arei Teshuva (quoting his grandfather, author of ‘Bechor Shor’) explains that the reason we read Megillat Ruth on Shavuot is because David Hamelech was born and died on Shavuot. Therefore, given that Ruth was the great-grandmother of David, it is fitting to read Megillat Ruth at this time as a means of recording David’s lineage.

In this shiur I would like to explore the connection between David & his great-grandmother Ruth by focussing on perhaps the most poignant moment in Megillat Rut where Ruth chooses to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi while Orpah leaves, and learning how the behaviour of Ruth & Orpah laid the foundations of the most extraordinary encounter in Tanach – the battle between David & Goliath.


We begin with Megillat Rut where we read that Elimelech and his wife Naomi had two sons, Mahlon and Khilyon, and that they went as a family to Moav in response to a famine in the Land of Israel.

It came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a man of Beth-Lehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons. 2. And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Khilyon, Ephrathites of Beth-Lehem in Judah. And they came to the country of Moab, and remained there. 3. And Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left with her two sons. 4. And they took wives of the women of Moab; the name of one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth; and they dwelled there about ten years.


While are given clear information regarding the genealogy of Mahlon & Khilyon, the verses themselves tell us nothing about the background of Ruth & Orpah. However, the Midrashic literature tries to fill this gap. We are told that Orpah and Ruth were actually sisters and were the daughters of King Eglon of Moab (Ruth Rabbah 2:9) who, in turn was the son of Balak. Not only does this align Ruth & Orpah with two individuals who were both regarded as threats to Israel, but it also indicates that Ruth & Orpah grew up in the same home and received the same upbringing. Conventional wisdom would tell us that as a result of growing up in the same home, Ruth & Orpah would likely live similar lives and hold similar beliefs. However, as we will soon see, Ruth & Orpah were very different, as compared to Mahlon & Khilyon who were very similar.


Dr Yael Zeigler writes: Note the manner in which the sons are introduced: “And the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Khilyon” (Ruth 1:2). The difference between the introduction of Mahlon and Khilyon and that of Ruth and Orpah is striking: “The name of one was Orpah, and the name of the second was Ruth” (Ruth 1:4). Mahlon and Khilyon, who are introduced as one unit are not expected to distinguish themselves one from the other. Ruth and Orpah, whose paths will diverge, are already introduced as two separate and distinct individuals. Indeed, Mahlon and Khilyon are regarded as a unit to such an extent that initially, we are not even told which man married which woman. Furthermore, the Midrashic literature which seeks to shed light on the characters of Mahlon & Khilyon, indicates an equivalence between them as Ruth Rabba 2:5 states: “And the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Khilyon: Machlon, because they were erased (nimchu) from the world, and Khilyon, because they were destroyed (khalu) from the world. Here too, Dr Zeigler offers a brilliant insight: It is interesting that the etymological midrashim treat Mahlon and Khilyon as one unit….Even the formulation of the question is in the plural: Why were their names called Mahlon? And why were they called Khilyon? The point of these midrashim is clear. The brothers have not individuated and they have no independent identity. Neither of them may be said to have fulfilled his destiny as an individual.

In fact, it is precisely because they blindly continued in the path of their father that they were punished. As the Midrash Tanchuma (Behar) writes: “And Elimelech, Naomi’s husband died” – Should not the sons have learned a lesson from the death of their father and returned to the land of Israel? What did they do? They also [sinned]. They married Moabite women and did not even induce their wives to undergo ritual purification and conversion. This is all the more poignant when we read that Elimelech was given clear signs that he had acted improperly. The Midrash (Ruth Rabba 2:10) relates that upon arriving in Moav, Elimelech’s horses died. Then his donkeys, and then his camels. Yet Elimelech did not get the message. Then Elimelech died and you would have thought that Mahlon and Khilyon would have left Moav. But they didn’t. They stayed put and eventually they too died. The message we get from Mahlon and Khilyon is that a person cannot change their destiny. If your parent does something wrong, you must continue in their path because you are bound by the limiting beliefs of your upbringing.


Let us now move onto Ruth & Orpah. We have noted that from the language used in verse 4 that it is clear that Ruth & Orpah are two separate and distinct individuals notwithstanding the fact that they were sisters, but what makes them different becomes quite clear in how they respond to the instructions of their mother-in-law Naomi. Naomi instructs her two daughters-in-law, Rut and Orpah to Go, return each of you to her mother’s house; the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead, and with me. The Lord grant you that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband. (Ruth 1:8-9). In response to this plea, we read that they lifted up their voice, and wept. And they said to her, No, we will return with you to your people. (Ruth 1:9-10). However, while Naomi was clearly touched by the intentions of both her daughters-in-law, she responds by saying to them: Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Are there yet any more sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say, I have hope, even if I should have a husband tonight, and should bear sons;  Would you wait for them till they were grown? Would you, for them, refrain from having husbands? No, my daughters; for it grieves me much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord is gone out against me (Ruth 1:11-13). We then read that they lifted up their voice, and wept again (Ruth 1:14). However, it is at this point that we see a difference between Ruth and Orpah – a different behaviour pattern from sisters who were nurtured in the same environment, because we then read that: Orpah kissed her mother-in-law; but Ruth clung to her (Ruth 1:14). Here too, conventional wisdom would say that Orpah is the more obedient daughter-in-law because she follows the instructions of Naomi, and conventional wisdom would also say that Naomi and Ruth are doomed to poverty and death. However, Ruth does not limit herself according to conventional wisdom, and this contrast is also evident in how our Sages interpreted the names of Ruth & Orpah. While Ruth Rabba (2:9) states that the name Orpah is etymologically linked with the words ‘hafach’ (turned around) & ‘oreph’ (nape of neck) for she turned the nape of her neck (haphkha oreph) to her mother-in-law, the same Midrash explains that the name Ruth is etymologically linked with the word ‘ra’ah’ (to see) because she saw (ra’ata) the words of her mother-in-law. Conventional wisdom says that we can’t see words, we can only hear them. But as I have previously noted, a key lesson in Megillat Ruth is that conventional wisdom is not always right. So while Mahlon & Khilyon had no independent identity and simply blindly followed their father to Moav, and consequently blindly followed their father to their death, the lesson that emerges from Ruth is that a person can change their destiny and overcome the limiting beliefs of your upbringing, even if your father is King Eglon of Moab and your grandfather is Balak. This is evident from the final verses in Megillat Ruth, where we read that Ruth, the daughter of King Eglon and granddaughter of Balak, became the great-grandmother of David Hamelech.


At the same time, basing itself on II Sam. 21:18, the Yalkut Shimoni points out that Orpah also had a famous descendant as Goliat was Orpah’s son, which means that when David fought Goliath, he was fighting his grandfather’s first cousin. According to a very cryptic statement in the Gemara, the foundations of the battle between David & Goliath are found in the moment when Orpah left Naomi and Ruth remained: Orpah kissed her mother-in-law; but Ruth clung to her” (Ruth 1:14) – Said God: Let the sons of the one who kissed come and fall by the hands of the sons of the one who clung. (TB Sotah 42b).

I would like to try and make sense of this Gemara but to do so, let us review the story of David & Goliath. Chapter 14 of Shmuel I tells us about the shattering and miraculous defeat of the Philistines at the hands of King Saul and his son, Yonatan. A few months later, they wanted a rematch, and brought along a 13 foot giant called Goliath who challenged the Jews to settle the war by sending a single warrior to engage him in individual combat. The Israelites were terrified. Unexpectedly, David, who was then a young shepherd, volunteered to fight Goliath. It took some persuasion, but King Saul finally agreed to let David fight against the giant. Dressed in his simple tunic, carrying his shepherd’s staff, sling and a pouch full of stones, David approached Goliath.

Before we proceed let’s take a look at what is happening. Goliath is a 13 foot giant in armour and holding a large spear, and David is a young shepherd with a sling and pouch. Conventional wisdom teaches us that David is going to lose. But, as Malcolm Gladwell tries to emphasise, the main lesson that we should learn from this story is not to be limited by what people call conventional wisdom. The giant cursed at him, hurling threats and insults and David responded, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied … today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air … and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel … it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” As Gladwell observes, ‘twice David mentions Goliath’s sword and spear, as if to emphasize how profoundly different his intentions are’ (p. 12). For Gladwell, ‘the reason King Saul is sceptical of David’s chances is that David is small and Goliath is large. Saul things of power in terms of physical might. He doesn’t appreciate that power can come in other forms as well’ (pp. 12-13). Gladwell continues, ‘what the Israelites saw, from high on the ridge, was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem’ (pp. 14-15).

In light of these insights, I would now like to explain the cryptic piece of Gemara that we encountered. Said God: Let the sons of the one who kissed come and fall by the hands of the sons of the one who clung. (TB Sotah 42b).

Conventional wisdom says that a kiss is more powerful than a hug, and conventional wisdom says that Ruth ‘should have’ died a lonely gentile pauper. But Ruth did not follow conventional wisdom. She stayed with Naomi when conventional wisdom would have told her to go back home. Ruth was someone who did not just hear words; she could see them because she saw opportunities where others could only see impossibilities. As a result of this, Ruth, who was the daughter of King Eglon and granddaughter of Balak, became the great-grandmother of David Hamelech from whom Moshiach will descend; and it is this trait for seeing beyond conventional wisdom that Ruth passed on to her great-grandson David. When Saul looked at David and then at Goliath, he was sceptical of David’s chances. But Saul was someone who followed conventional wisdom, while David had been taught by his great-grandmother Ruth that a hug is more powerful than a kiss, and that a person can change their destiny whatever their upbringing.


The story of Megillat Ruth is the story of the Jewish people. Conventional wisdom teaches us that that the Jewish nation ‘should have’ died out long ago and that Israel should not have been able to defend itself. But Jews look at things differently. As Gladwell point out, during the six-day war, Moshe Dayan reminded the army about the story of David & Goliath in order to teach them that the IDF’s strength is that it does not blindly follow conventional wisdom, and along these lines Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky writes, ‘Predictions of defeat were abound when Israel’s army is outnumbered 10 to 1 and – yet we survived. The dire predictions of mass assimilation amidst despair after World War II faded into a rebirth of a Jewish community and renewed Torah education on unparalleled levels. Conventional wisdom had lost hope for our Russian brothers and sisters, yet new embers of Torah Judaism are beginning to glow out of the former bastion of atheism. We are not ruled by conventional wisdom.’


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