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To Be ‘Remaindered’: The Book of Ruth’s Naomi as Mourner

Naomi's mourning is comforted by Ruth bringing home grain. This is the Seudat havraah, the meal of consolation served by friends after the dead have been buried.
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Jonathan Magonet, in his book, Bible Lives, reads Naomi as a mourner going through a difficult trauma on the way to consolation and healing.

Naomi has seen her identity and her family stripped away a piece at a time from leaving Bethlehem, to losing a husband, and then two sons. The Megillah uses a charged term – vatishaer = she remained. Each time she struggled to face tragedy – the famine, then the move, but God/fate struck her leaving her “left alone.” Her husband dies, then her sons get married to keep the line alive, but God/fate strikes her again, leaving her utterly “left alone.”

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.
5. And both Machlon and Chilyon died; and the woman was left without her two children and her husband. (Ruth 1:3-5)

That term tishaer recalls the concern for loss of memory embodied in descendants, which in the Biblical world is worse than death. In II Samuel 14:7, the woman of Tekoah, tries to convince David to forgive his son Avshalom for the murder of his other son Amnon, by acting as if this were her personal story:

“The [remaining son and] heir will be wiped out, my glowing coal which remains/ nishara will be extinguished, so no one will bear my husband’s name and preserve his remainder/memory/sheirit on the face of the earth.” (II Samuel 14:7).

Nevertheless when Naomi initially hears that things in the old country are improving, that God has recalled his people (Ruth 1:6) and restored bread, she initiates a return home. Perhaps she was impoverished already in Moab with no one to help her, or perhaps she just looked for a ray of hope to start over.

Initially Naomi takes her daughters-in-law with her on the way home. But then after they have begun their common journey, Naomi realizes she must send her daughters-in-law back to Moab (Ruth 1:8).

Does she understand that whatever hope she looks for in Judah can never solve these young widows’ problems? Has Naomi overcome her egocentric concern for self and reached out to put her daughters-in-law first? Has she become more realistic on second thought after that first ray of false hope? Does she know her people in Judah will not help support these Moabites or marry them? (Deuteronomy 23:4-7 “An Amoni and a Moavi shall not enter the community of God forever…nor shall anyone worry about their peace or their well-being…forever.”)

Or perhaps Naomi is anxious to send away her daughters-in-law, her remaining “family,” her last living memories of her sons, as another step in her self-destruction as a woman who has despaired. “Lechna shovna = Go get out of here, go away from me, go back where you came from” (Ruth 1:8).

Jonathan Magonet suggests: “What Naomi wanted was for them to leave her to her own private bitterness and sadness….She was herself adding to the process of loss, ridding herself of the last reminders of her husband and children and somehow confirming and even increasing her emptiness and loneliness.” Her state of desolation could then justify her self-pity or her suicidal desires.

Perhaps Naomi was also protecting herself from further loss by cutting off relationships which she feels will not last like the one with daughters-in-law who will go off to remarry. (Listen to the words of Simon and Garfunkel’s song of self-protection from pain. Its refrain is “I am a rock, I am an island.”)

Maybe Naomi was also imagining, as one does on a trip, the homecoming and imagining the response of the women to these Moabites who would be blamed for causing the death of the men in her family. Maybe she would be ashamed that she allowed her sons to marry them.

Midrash Ruth (Zuta 1) says: “Why was she trying to return her daughters-in-law to Moab? So she would be embarrassed by them [when she returned to Bethlehem].” Maybe she began to blame them for all that had befallen her as she feared the women of Bethlehem would.

Ruth 1:13 says: “No, my daughters; for it embitters me much for your sakes, that the hand of the Lord is gone out against me.” – so you too will be affected by my fate! But Midrash Ruth Rabbah 2:18 explicates: “because of you God’s hand struck me, my sons and my husband.”

Naomi then appeals again to the daughters-in-law in similar language but softened by an intimate renaming of them as her daughters: “Shovna, Bnotai, lechna.”

Nevertheless, Naomi does not abandon her persuasive stance. Refael Breuer, grandson of Shimshon Refael Hirsch, praises Naomi, who will not be swayed by all the emotional expressions – tears, kisses, wailing. She remains logical and determined to send the daughters-in-law away, for their own sake.

Naomi sees their long-term needs, ignoring their short-term feelings of abandonment. She understands: “No, my daughters; for it embitters me much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord is gone out against me,” (Ruth 1:13) to mean that I will suffer from watching you age and wither as young women wasting your youth and fertility. That will cause me even more bitterness, so for my sake leave me!

After Ruth’s passionate refusal to leave and her demand that Naomi stop trying to persuade her, Naomi sinks into herself, a long unbroken silence until they arrive in Bethlehem.

Facing the women in Bethlehem, Naomi must deal with their response. The power and depth of Naomi’s tragedy is represented by the shock of those who had known her in a previous life. The key term is vatehom = hullabaloo (everyone commenting about her) / mehuma = shock / tohu = confusion, chaos.

What motivates their response?

Are they merely shocked, forcing Naomi to take the measure of what she has lost gradually over 20 years? Is this a rebuke for leaving Bethlehem in its time of famine?

Is their pity something that insults her pride as a woman from a notable family? Do the women feel a poorly concealed vengeful satisfaction at the downfall of Naomi – the wealthy, well-married woman with the “perfect family” of two sons, who has now been brought lower than any of them? Do they feel the irony of calling her Naomi in such changed circumstances? Or are they truly interested in being comforters (not like Job’s comforters)?

Then before this audience of women, Naomi is able to transform her mute suffering into an articulate poem of mourning. Perhaps it is even an implicit protest against God enunciated before the women of her hometown. Or is it a public confession of guilt as part of her teshuvah:

Do not call me Naomi (pleasantness)
Call me Mara (bitterness)
For Shaddai has embittered me greatly.
I, with fullness, went away,Empty Adonai brought me back.
Why do you call me Naomi When Shaddai has cause me harm? (Ruth 1:21)

Each verse begins with Naomi’s name and ends with Shaddai. The mourner may still be in a deeply egocentric and self-pitying stage, defiantly refusing to be consoled, and yet perhaps the articulation is the beginning of the healing process for Naomi has expressed her pain, channeled it into the art of poetry, and performed it in public. Raw emotions have been refined into rhetoric.

Yet we the readers know things are looking up. Naomi has heard about how things in Bethlehem have improved thanks to God. The turn to hope is approaching, though Naomi cannot see it yet.

Naomi’s mourning of her lost possibilities is comforted by Ruth bringing home grain. This is called in the halacha Seudat havraah = the meal of consolation served by friends to the mourner after the dead of have been buried. Food is a sign of life and commitment to the future.

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