I admit that I have never given much thought to the Book of Ruth, the four-chapter biblical narrative traditionally read on the holiday of Shavuot. While it was always easy to “root for Ruth” — and her “redeemer” Boaz — I failed to identified with the story’s other main character, Naomi.
After she and her wealthy, influential family leave the land of Israel for Moab in the wake of a great famine, Naomi is bereaved of her husband and her two sons. She returns to her hometown of Bethlehem a decade later completely destitute, accompanied by her Moabite daughter in law, Ruth.
While the current global coronavirus pandemic is not the same as a biblical famine, sadly many of the main themes in the Book of Ruth have become all too familiar to us in the new reality of COVID-19, namely death and severe economic hardship.
Naomi, as opposed to the much more optimistic Ruth, suffers from an additional ailment – bitterness. As the poverty-stricken pair arrives in Bethlehem, the whole town is abuzz as the local women begin to recognize Naomi, asking “Can this be Naomi?” (Ruth 1:19). But Naomi refused to claim that name.
“Don’t call me Naomi (“pleasant”),” she answers them. “Call me Marah (“bitter”), because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me, the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (Ruth 1:20-21)
It is only natural for Naomi, after all the suffering she has been through, to feel angry, betrayed, sad, worried and yes, even bitter. But changing her name? Insisting on calling herself “Marah” (bitter)? Isn’t that a bit much?
Before passing judgment on Naomi, perhaps we should all take a good look in the mirror. When the coronavirus pandemic hit Israel in March, causing a nationwide shutdown and a severe economic crisis, tens of thousands Israelis – me included – were furloughed by their employers. It is only natural for a furloughed employee to feel the same feelings Naomi felt, but we stopped short at being bitter – or did we?
For a while, early on during the crisis, in a feeble attempt at dark humor, when friends would call me asking, “How are you, Yonatan?” I would answer with, “Don’t call me ‘Yonatan’, it’s ‘Corona-tan’!”
But now, after rereading the Book of Ruth and internalizing Naomi’s bitter response to her neighbors, “Don’t call me Naomi, call me Marah“, I have put “Corona-tan” to bed for good. Bitterness is not healthy – even in jest.
So what is the antidote for bitterness? The word “Marah” appears much earlier in the Tanach (Bible) than in the Book of Ruth, as the name of a place in the Book of Exodus, in a short episode right after the miracle of the splitting of the sea.
“And they (the Children of Israel) came to Marah, they could not drink of the water from Marah, for they were bitter; therefore the name of the place was called Marah (bitter). So the people murmured against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink’? And he (Moses) cried unto God; and God showed him an “eitz” (tree) which when he cast into the water, then the waters were made sweet.” (Exodus 15:23-25)
What is going on here? How are we to understand this strange episode? In his book on the weekly Torah portion, ‘Living Each Week’, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski explains how The Baal Shem Tov interprets the first verse with the pronoun “they” as referring to the Israelites rather than the waters. The verse now reads, “They could not drink the waters of Marah because they, the Israelites, were bitter.” Rabbi Dr. Twerski explains that in his psychiatric practice this is frequently encountered. A person who is depressed may complain that everything he eats has a bitter taste. In these instances the bitterness is not in the food, but in one’s taste perception.
He goes on to write that this is even more common in one’s attitude and interpretation of happenings in life than with taste. There are indeed some unfortunate occurrences in life that are objectively bitter. However, there are many times when we judge things to be bitter when they are not so in reality, and it is only because of a distorted perception that we consider them bitter. He explains that these misperceptions may often be corrected if we perceive our experiences through the perspective of Torah philosophy rather than through that of prevailing cultural attitudes and values.
The Torah is an “eitz chayim” (a tree of life), of which it is said that those who support Torah will achieve happiness (Proverbs 3:18). Many things in life may be unpleasant, but our reaction and adjustment to them can vary, and we may be able to accept adversity with serenity. With the guidance of Torah, much bitterness can be averted. God showed Moses the tree, the eitz chayim of Torah, through whose perspective the bitter waters can be sweetened.
So bitterness all depends on the way you look at things. Simply put, “Dude, change your attitude.” Change the way you see the world and you will stop being bitter.
In the Book of Ruth, Naomi does not remain bitter. When Boaz, a wealthy relative of Naomi’s late husband Elimelech, enters the picture and shows kindness to Ruth, Noami’s attitude changes from bitter to hopeful. When Boaz eventually marries Ruth, thereby guaranteeing financial stability for Ruth and Noami too, and a son, named Oved, is born to the couple, Naomi is filled with joy again. She overcomes her past bitterness and is ‘Naomi’, pleasant, once again.
So, is that it? Are hope, renewal and financial stability the only keys in overcoming bitterness? While the birth of Oved gives Naomi comfort that the seed of her late son, and Ruth’s late husband, Machlon lives on in the child, who would become the grandfather of King David, is that enough?
I believe there is one more critical element. The Book of Ruth states that Naomi became the child’s nurse. Why is that important? I believe that caring for the child gave Naomi purpose in life. It took away her past bitterness as she focused on raising the child with the proper Jewish values. Naomi now has a job.
Speaking of jobs, isn’t interesting that the child was named “Oved” which means “worker“. In these difficult times perhaps best way to help furloughed workers (“ovdim“) avoid bitterness is by helping them get back to work.
In the meantime, let’s not be bitter – but better.