Monday, June 06, 2016

The anti-hero and heroine in the Book of Ruth

One of the traditions of the holiday of Shavuoth  is reading Megillath Ruth.  The story of this most famous of converts to Judaism encompasses both the themes of accepting the Torah and the origins of the Davidic monarchy. Shavuoth is identified as the birthday of David the first king in that line.  I wanted to share some further observations on the lessons inherent in the story.  Let's look at the characters who provide foils for our hero and heroine.

Boaz is the one who does the right thing despite it appearing to be a bad business bargain.  The contrast to his heroism is seen in the backtracking of the closer relative, identified as Ploni Almoni, which is the equivalent olf John Doe, to not embarrass him by name or because his actual name was Tov, which means good, something he did not live up to.  See further details at kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2008/06/taking-spiritual-advantage-rather-than.html

The contrast to Ruth, is her sister-in-law, Orpah.  In the text, she doesn't sound like a bad person, just not as heroic and self-sacrificing as Ruth is.  She takes her mother-in-law at her word and leaves her to return to her people.  But then what happens? According to Ruth Rabba, she descended into the very depths of depravity that very night with 100 partners and a dog.  There is a textual hint in Shmuel in Goliath’s referring to “kelev” [dog] in his exchange with David.  Why do the Sages come down so hard on Orpah?  What she did seemed neutral, not really bad, so why should they assume the worst of her. 

My answer would be that there are situations in which turning away from the opportunity for the heroic is not acceptable and is tantamount to choosing an evil path.  Orpah left the good influence of Naomi, and that alone, was a step toward wrongdoing that quickly became the very lowest one could imagine.  A parallel would be the Midrash on Pharoh’s 3 advisers.  Bilaam who gave the evil advice to kill all the newborn boys was the worst.  Yithro who opposed had to flee, but then got to the honor of becoming Moshe’s father-in-law.  There was a third, who appeared to be neutral.  That was Iyov [ Job]  He didn’t promote the evil plan, but he didn’t oppose it either.  In that situation being unheroic was considered nearly as bad as perpetrating evil.  Because he opted for neutrality when opposition was called for,  Iyov had to endure the severe suffering recounted in his book.

Iyov did not start out as a bad person.  He thought his protest would be futile and  didn't wish to be a hero. Likewise, both iPloni Almoni and Orpah both  passed on the opportunity to rise up to the plate.  As a result, they are remembered as negative role models, the contrast to the hero and heroine in the story of Ruth. 

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