Wednesday, 24 May 2023

Written by Eleanor Davis

To become a Nazirite seems a holy choice: to dedicate yourself to God and abstain from intoxicants and hair-cutting.  Yet in Parashat Naso the ritual for ending a period of Nazirite living includes bringing a sin offering – so what was the sin in this period of ‘holy’ living? Drawing on Mishnah Nedarim 9:1, which connects fulfilling vows honouring parents, perhaps we might consider the sin in relation to how far the Nazirite must avoid contact with the dead: “Even if their father or mother, or their brother or sister should die, they must not become defiled for any of them…” (Numbers 6:7). Seen from the parent’s perspective, this choice to become a Nazirite could seem a potential betrayal of the most basic expectations of a close relationship.

Just before Shabbat Naso, on Shavuot we read Megillat Ruth, including Ruth’s famous pledge of allegiance to Naomi’s people and her God: another story that could look rather different if read from the perspective of her birth family.  Drawing on several Tanakh episodes and midrashim, especially Ruth Rabbah 2 and Babylonian Talmud Sotah 42b, I offer not a replacement of the Book of Ruth, but an invitation to read Ruth with fresh eyes and more questions.  May the Book of Orpah encourage our awareness that even the apparently holy choices we make may come at a cost, to ourselves and to those close to us, and open our ears to other perspectives on our stories.


The Book of Orpah

In the days when the chieftains ruled, there was a famine in the land of Judah.  A man of Bethlehem in Judah, with his wife and two sons, came to reside in Moab: Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their sons Machlon and Chilion.  They came to Moab and remained here.

Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left with her two sons.

Machlon married a princess of Moab: her name was Ruth, daughter of Eglon, king of Moab.  Chilion also married a princess of Moab: her name was Orpah, daughter of Eglon, king of Moab.  They lived here for nearly ten years, but then those two – Machlon and Chilion – died; Ruth and Orpah were widowed.

The Bethlehemite woman heard that the famine had ended in her country.  The woman had become dear to her daughters-in-law, so when she set out to leave Moab, they accompanied her.  With their mother-in-law, Orpah and Ruth set out from their home; they started out on the road leading away from Moab towards Naomi’s land.

But their mother-in-law said to Orpah and Ruth, “Turn back, each of you to her mother’s house. May the Eternal deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me!  May the Eternal grant that each of you find security in the house of a husband!” And she kissed them farewell. Orpah and Ruth broke into weeping and said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”  They walked another forty paces with her.

But Naomi replied, “Turn back, my daughters! Why should you go with me? Have I any more sons in my body who might be husbands for you? Turn back, my daughters, for I am too old to be married. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I were married tonight and I also bore sons, should you wait for them to grow up? Should you on their account debar yourselves from marriage? Oh no, my daughters! My lot is far more bitter than yours, for the hand of the Eternal has struck out against me.”

Orpah and Ruth broke into weeping again.  Orpah kissed her mother-in-law and wept and said, “As you have urged me to leave you, I will turn back.  Your gods are not my gods and your people are not my people: even if I follow you, they will not welcome me.  I will return to seek somewhere that it may be good for me, with a future and a family; and among my own people I will die.”  Orpah wept again in farewell and turned to leave.

But Ruth clung to Naomi, who said, “See, your sister-in-law has returned to her people and her gods. Go follow your sister-in-law.”  Ruth replied, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Eternal do to me if anything but death parts me from you.”  When Naomi saw how determined she was to go with her, she ceased to argue with her; and the two went off together.

When Orpah heard that Ruth had gone with Naomi, she broke into weeping as she returned alone on the road leading into Moab.  As evening fell, a company of Philistines came up behind her on the road: the chief of the company saw her, and took her and lay with her, then the men of the company abused her all night long until morning, saying, “This is what is done to one who betrays her country for anything but death.”

As dawn was breaking, the growling of a dog was heard, and the men were afraid: she looked up and saw a man of great stature fighting the men who had abused her, until not one remained.  He asked for her name, but she said, “Do not call me Orpah, for it is my sister-in-law who turned her back (oref) on her people; call me Harifah, for I was ground like bruised corn (harifot) until you saved me.”  He replied to her, “Though you were bruised, yet I will bring you healing (refuah) and you will become the mother of giants (rephaim).”

And the giant took her, and she became his wife, and she bore him four sons: Ishbi-Benob, Saph, Goliath, and Madon.

Eleanor Davis LBC rabbinical student



The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.