An aftermath of grief in the Book of Ruth

Orpah, Ruth, and Naomi each must grapple with her own sorrow and pain, and their experiences are telling for those of us who read their tale
Ruth and Naomi, from Sefira Lightstone's 'Ruth,' part of the Chochmat Nashim project, 'SEEN.'
Ruth and Naomi, from Sefira Lightstone's 'Ruth,' part of the Chochmat Nashim project, 'SEEN.'

If the past few months have taught us anything, it is that some grow louder in the face of loss and others quieter. Grief looks different on each one of us.

In Megillat Rut (the Book, or Scroll, of Ruth), the text we read on the holiday of Shavuot, we find a powerful affirmation of the different forms of grief. They are especially resonant now as we feel the outpouring of the Jewish world’s anger, fear, and mourning in the still-echoing wake of unprecedented attack, of war we never wanted, of lost and stolen loved ones.

Megillat Rut opens with introductions, but quickly turns to obituaries of its male characters, Elimelech, Machlon, and Chilion. Left behind are the wives of these figures: Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah. These losses presented a quandary: what should a bereaved widow and her two daughters-in-law do in their aftermath? 

Naomi decided to return to her hometown. She urged her daughters-in-law to return to their own Moabite homes: “Turn back, each of you to her mother’s house!” Ruth and Orpah wept; argued.

“My lot is far more bitter than yours,” explained Naomi, “for the hand of the LORD has struck out against me.” 

Many deeply grieving people feel like Naomi did, like the shell of a person. In the text, Naomi alluded to the emptiness of her womb — the inability to bear another child — a life with no lineage. Her maternal identity disintegrated, devastating her hopes of continuity. Later she renamed herself Marah, bitter. All she saw in front of her was barren. 

Orpah returned to her childhood home. Rava explains that she cried as she departed, and that “as a reward for the four tears that Orpah shed in sadness over her mother-in-law, she merited four mighty warriors descended from her.”

Orpah left — another response to grief: departure, leaving behind the reminders of the pain. She turned away when she experienced loss, away from the only people who might truly understand. 

Like Naomi, Orpah went back to what she knew: her family and faith. 

Only Ruth went toward something new. 

Ruth responded to grief by tightening her grip — “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.” While Naomi’s grief turned her bitter and Orpah left in the face of loss, the bereaved Ruth burns with purpose. 

This is a third form of grief. Ruth cleaved to her mother-in-law, intent on making her pain easier to bear. In shouldering her mother-in-law’s grief, Ruth internalized her own pain. 

We don’t know how Orpah fared back in Moav with her grief. We can’t know what her recovery looked like. Some figures say she was promiscuous upon her departure from Naomi and Ruth. Orpah parted from those who would share grief with her and experienced it alone. If indeed she was promiscuous, perhaps it was to fill the void left by loss.

Rut’s compassion ultimately made her a worthy wife and mother, and she was provided for in all the ways she provided for Naomi. What we can recognize as internalized grief makes it difficult to ascertain if Ruth ever healed from her loss. But there is a small textual hint.

At the end of Megillat Rut, there is a small scene in which Naomi embraces Ruth’s child, taking the child from Ruth’s arms, holding it to her own chest. This small textual aside provides context: Ruth, who we know to hold her loved ones close in her pain, allowed someone else to hold her child. In Ruth’s grief we saw her cling, but perhaps her recovery allowed her to let go.

Naomi’s recovery from her grief is most apparent within the text. Women close to Naomi — a support system — rejoiced when Ruth bore a son. The women told Naomi, the same Naomi who once called herself empty, that the child would “renew” and “sustain” her. The child filled Naomi’s barrenness, the void she saw within herself.

And the women did not refer to her as Marah. They called her Naomi.

About the Author
Ruthie creates innovative Jewish programming and supports the development of young Jewish leaders. She believes that storytelling and storysharing is the most powerful uniting force on this planet, and strives to operate spaces that embrace the diversity of the human experience. Currently, Ruthie lives on the Upper East Side with her husband Max (a semicha student at RIETS), a fluffy high-strung dog, and their very adventurous toddler.
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