Why must Elimelech die?

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One of my complaints about interpretations of Scripture in the early Rabbinic period has been that they seek to solve the problem in theodicy in problematic texts by inventing midrash about how the people who were punished were really, really wicked. So Esau and his wives cause Isaac’s blindness with the smoke of their heathen sacrifices, so that we know Esau deserved to be a victim of the birthright fraud. Stuff like that, and often very ugly. The actual text of Ruth (I am reading Ruth because it is Shavuot tomorrow) is utterly devoid of such things, so the Sages make them up. The ugliest of them is the stuff they say about Orphah, the daughter-in-law of Naomi who returns to her family as Naomi tells her to rather than insisting on accompanying Naomi and Ruth back to Bethlehem. In my view, the slander of Orpah runs against the point of the story, which is that Ruth and Boaz both go beyond the requirements of the law, acting out of kindness more than obligation.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Book of Ruth, here’s the plot in a nutshell: a widow (Naomi) returns to her home in Bethlehem with her widowed daughter-in-law (Ruth); Naomi sets Ruth up with a widowed relative (Boaz) who falls for Ruth and marries her. That’s pretty much it. The thing that starts off the chain of events is a famine in the Land, during which Naomi’s husband moves with his wife and sons to the more prosperous Moab metropolitan area. Then, there’s a plague. Did you notice a bunch of widows and widowers? Not really a good time for the actuaries. Anyway, Elimelech (Naomi’s husband) and his sons all die in the plague, leaving three widows without means of support.

So, if you are the Sages, the question is why did Elimelech die? What was his guilt that occasioned his early death? Because, you know, what’s the point of a story if you can’t slander the dead?

To be fair, or at least fairer than I usually am, it’s pretty clear from the context that the midrashes are stories told about stories. That is, they are taking the opportunity of the story-telling to reiterate a moral point. The listeners presumably are aware of how this works and are able to distinguish between the story and the story about the story. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the Sages or their audience necessarily believed that the Divine dealt out rewards and punishments in quite that linear a manner. It’s a more sophisticated (in a sense) version of what I do now and then with my kids, breaking in to the story to make a point or ask a question. That doesn’t excuse the misogyny or the viciousness of some of the stories, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

What was Elimelech’s sin? The only thing we know about him is that he left the Land and went to Moab. So. His sin was in leaving the Land and going to Moab. But… there was a famine! Surely in times of famine, it is no sin to take your family to where there is food! I mean, Israel brings his family to Egypt for just that reason, and he doesn’t die young. Of course, he isn’t young when that happens, but still. There’s a precedent.

So the sages say that the famine in the Land was actually rather mild. There are some differences of opinion as to the details, an inflation in food prices of anywhere from 2.5% up to 100%. The Sages also discuss how bad a famine needs to be in order to justify moving out of the Land. They do agree that (a) despite food becoming expensive, there was no actual scarcity, and (2) Elimelech was rich and could have paid the higher prices.

So with Elimelech! He was one of the notables of his place and one of the leaders of his generation. But when the famine came, he said, ‘Now all Israel will come knocking at my door [for help,] each one with his basket.’ He therefore arose and fled from them. This is the meaning of the verse.

That’s from Ruth Rabbah, a translation by Dr. L. Rabinowitz, chapter 1. In other words, his sin was selfishness, and a particular kind of selfishness. There is an implication that Elimelech had in good times assured his neighbors that he would be able to feed the hungry, but when hard times came, he reneged on that promise. Or that he was willing to feed the hungry so long as there weren’t very many of them, and so long as he had plenty left over, but that when there was a risk of his charity eating into his luxury, he pulled up his stakes and went. The Sages paint Elimelech as a rich and prominent man who, when push comes to shove, was more attached to his money than to his neighbors.

Is that the Elimelech of the Scripture? Is it the “real” Elimelech? That’s not the right question. Or at least, that’s what I think what I’m getting from Ruth Rabbah this Shavuot. The question is whether it’s a good lesson. Whether, while I’m thinking about Ruth, it’s helpful to think about the Elimelech of the Midrashin addition to the Elimelech of the Scriptures. Whether this other story helps me or not. When the Sages talk about Orpah, it just makes me cross. When the Sages talk about Elimelech, I can learn something—not just about Elimelech, but about Boaz. Not just about Eduardo Severin but about myself.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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