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Tanach that is read in synagogue on the second day of Shavuot.]
Life was nothing but tragedy for Naomi. Five years earlier she thought that she had suffered through the worst: there had been a famine in the land, and Elimelech, her husband, insisted on uprooting her and her two boys from their spacious and comfortable home in Bethlehem because he heard that there was work in Moab. Naomi suffered there, the food was different, the people didn’t speak her language, everything smelled different, she felt like an outsider. But Elimelech had work, and her sons, Machlon and Kilyon had adjusted well, they’d made friends, they grew, sprouting like the purple thistle weeds that appeared almost overnight amid the rocky hillsides. Soon they were able to work too, and despite her reservations about moving to Moab, Naomi’s family thrived.
But then tragedy struck. Elimelech died. Nobody had any good explanation why. A work injury, he lifted something too strenuous, he fell and was trampled, there were conflicting accounts. Naomi was left alone with her two sons. She begged them to leave Moab with her, to return to the land of her birth, to Bethlehem where she had family and friends. But the boys wouldn’t hear of it – something about pride and their father’s legacy. It made no sense to Naomi, but they were grown men by then, and she couldn’t travel back to Bethlehem alone.
Six months after their father died the boys took wives for themselves from the women of Moab. Naomi never liked these women, and she didn’t think they liked her much either. But they came to a form of truce over the next ten cruel years, years in which neither of her daughters-in-law bore any children, years in which Orpah, the more outspoken of the two, blamed Naomi’s cursed Judean blood. And then, just as suddenly as her husband had been taken, her sons were gone as well. Naomi had never known such grief. There was nothing left to live for, and she had wasted half her life in this God-forsaken land, which robbed her of the only things in life she ever cared for.
Naomi decided that she would return home to die. She packed up all her earthly belongings and took her dutiful daughter-in-laws with her. Orpah was crying, she clearly had no desire to follow Naomi to Judah, but she did as was customary and followed her mother-in-law. But when they reached the road to Judah Naomi offered them a choice:
“You have no reason to come with me. Go back to your mother’s houses. You are not too young to start again. May God be with you. ” She kissed them on the lips, as was the custom of the country, and they both cried.
They both replied, “No, we will come with you,” but Naomi was wise in these matters and she could tell they were just saying the words out of duty. She responded: “Go back, my daughters. There is nothing for you with me. I cannot provide you with another pair of husbands, there are no more children in my womb. I am too old to remarry, and even if I did, you would need to wait 20 years for the children I would have to grow up and marry you. Don’t be ridiculous. Go home. Get married again.”
The women cried again, and Orpah kissed Naomi, and took her leave. But Ruth refused. Ruth hugged Naomi and wouldn’t let go.
Naomi said: “Orpah has gone back to her mother’s home, go with her!”
But Ruth said: “Please don’t beg me to leave you. I have grown to love you. Wherever you go, I will go. Where you sleep, I will sleep. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. God should smite me if I leave you, only death will part us.”
Now Naomi was quite taken aback by this outburst. Ruth had always been the quiet daughter-in-law, and Naomi was under the impression that she liked her even less that Orpah did, even though Orpah was the most vocal about her dislike of Naomi’s customs and religion.
Ruth and Naomi were silent for most of the way to Bethlehem. They shared a tent at night, sleeping together to keep warm. Naomi was glad that Ruth had joined her. There was something mysterious about her, and the more time they spent together, the more beautiful Naomi found her. And she admitted to herself, that it was nice to feel a body sleeping next to hers after so many years of sleeping alone.
When they arrived in Bethlehem, nobody could believe that Naomi had returned. Naomi was at peace to be home, but she was not cheerful. She told her family in a somber tone: “Don’t call me Naomi (‘pleasantness’) anymore; you must call me Marah (‘bitterness”) now, because God has dealt bitterly with me. I went out full, and God brought me back empty.” But as she said this to her family, she felt inside of her a bit of hope, because she was not completely empty: Ruth had made her feel alive again, and full of hope.