Every shiur should have a sports reference, some talk of women and men completing each other, and an overall point. So …
Most games are about entering your opponent’s territory and getting the ball into their end zone or goal, or taking their pieces or toppling their king. But the best games, like baseball, are about leaving home, accomplishing a mission and coming back.
Same with literature. They say every book is The Odyssey. The story of the journey home. The core concept of this story structure is that by the end you’ve made an impact – hopefully positive – on everything around you, but the main change is inside you. You’re back to the same place, but you’re not the same you.
The Torah is full of such circles. Breishit is a prequel in which we leave Israel. The rest of the Chumash is the story of us coming back, ending on the edge of the Jordan. The Tanach ends with Koresh telling Israel they can go home. For 2,000 years of exile we’ve seen history as our quest to return home, something we’re doing today.
We’re supposed to have learned, and struggled, enough on our journey that when we come home we can appreciate what we have and do things right.
There are narrower circles, like the one in Sefer Ruth. The homecoming story is Naomi’s. The story ends with a completed circle, the neighbors declaring “a son was born to Naomi.”
The story of woman and man coming together is Ruth’s. On the simplest level it’s about a woman and a man. A bit broader it’s the coming together and fulfillment of Yehuda & Tamar on one side and Lot and his daughters on the other. Still deeper, it’s the interplay of complementary ideas.
Here we get to some gender concepts of male and female, but with some role reversal. Moav literally means from the father. We don’t marry into Moav because Moav represents heartless, toxic masculinity. Together with Moav’s brother Amon, aka Ben Ami, the son of my nation, they represent out of control nationalism, selfishness and violence.
Boaz on the other side is from the nation of Israel, which is perhaps the feminine among the nations.
To see that we need to get to one other Biblical homecoming story. There’s one parsha that makes a full circle: Vayeitze.
In Toldot, Yaacov is introduced as a tent-dweller with smooth skin who makes a mean lentil soup. His twin brother is a hairy, violent, impulsive, scary man of the field who eats what he kills. Eisav can win direct confrontations, and that’s what he does. Yaacov cannot, and he finds other ways to succeed, sometimes involving deception and manipulation.
In Jewish Women, Jewish Men, Dr Aviva Cantor argues that Judaism repeatedly redefined masculinity to make it more – well – feminine. Less about violence and more about learning and productive white collar work.
She argues that this is still bad, that until we eliminate the evil social construct of masculinity we’ll be living a society based on power structures where women are left out. That’s a discussion for another time.
We could talk about “good” traits and actions like sharing and kindness and “bad” traits and actions like violence and tribalism.
So in Toldot, Yaacov is the good guy and Eisav is the bad guy, or so it seems. Vayeitze is a nice self-contained story of leaving home, becoming complete, and coming back. In VaYishlach we even have the explicit words “Yaacov came complete to Shchem.”
But I think that’s a misreading.
Yaacov goes to Charan to complete himself and he learns that he left his missing half at home. He gets married and starts a family, but the most important character in Vayeitze is the one that’s missing, Eisav.
Vayeitze is part of a wider story arc. It starts in Toldot where Yaacov, whose name implies manipulation, keeps trying to manipulate and then escape from his toxically masculine, brutish twin brother. It ends with Yisrael, whose name implies directness and honesty, recognizing and apologizing for his sins to his twin brother, and learning to appreciate his other half.
In between we have Vayeitze, where the tables get turned. Yaacov takes on the classic “masculine” role. Instead of waiting for help lifting the rock, he lifts it himself so he can carry on with his daily work. He goes out into the field, works hard every day, and finds himself constantly tricked and manipulated – “jewed” in medieval parlance – by Lavan, in ways eerily similar to what Yaacov did to Eisav. If Eisav shows us masculinity at its worst, Lavan represents the utter rejection of classically masculine traits and values, including integrity, physical strength, hard work, and fatherhood. Lavan, who thinks he’s all white and pure, finally announces “the children are my children and the flock is my flock and all that you have is mine” declaring that Yaacov’s actions as a worker and as a father are of no value and earn him no rights.
Yaacov learns there’s a good side and a toxic side to everything.
And he now understands his battle with his twin from the other side.
He goes through something similar to what some 20th Century Jews went through. In centuries in exile we insisted on a sometimes unsustainable approach favoring the minority relative to the majority and the national government. Suddenly as the governing majority we find a nation cannot survive with these impossible standards.
Back to Yaacov. He returns to Israel and hears Eisav is coming for revenge. Yaacov splits his people into two camps so that one can run away. Suddenly he spends the night wrestling with a mysterious figure who represents his twin, or himself. The scene is written with crazy wording full of pronouns so we never know what Yaacov is doing and what is being done to Yaacov. It seems like Yaacov realizes he can’t win, so he strikes his opponent an illegal blow below the belt, and somehow Yaacov gets hurt where he intended to hurt his opponent. We see elsewhere that everything Yaacov does to Eisav gets done to Yaacov. In Vayeitze, the elder and the younger are switched. And the phrase “And he cried a long and bitter cry” appears just twice in Tanach. Eisav cries from Yaacov’s actions, and Yaacov’s descendent Mordechai cries from the actions of Eisav’s descendant Haman.
Yaacov scraps his plan of arranging an escape. Instead he faces Eisav directly, offers a full apology, and makes amends.
Only then are we told “Yaacov came complete to Shchem.”
Which brings us back to Ruth and Boaz. Boaz’s Israel is a relatively charitable society where even the landless are able to feed their families without surrendering their freedom. They have utterly rejected the toxic masculinity of Moav. Interestingly Moav is not condemned for greeting us with an army, but rather for not offering us bread and water. It is not their “masculinity” that’s the problem, it’s their utter rejection of “feminine” concepts like charity and kindness. In this they are the descendants of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose active evil seems to follow from their rejection of Lot’s efforts to be kind and hospitable.
But in Ruth, Boaz sees the positive side of Moav, much as Yaacov and Yosef suddenly learned the positive side of Yehuda. Like Yehuda, Ruth follows through on commitments she made to family, at great personal cost. Kindness is not enough, there’s also a certain tribalism, and a bias for action. It’s less an orientation of doing what is good and more an orientation of following through on commitments and supporting your tribe.
Shaul will be Israel’s first king. The word “good” keeps following Shaul, as in “from his shoulders and up he was more good than any other man.” Like his matriarch Rachel, he begins merciful to a fault and ends living the cliché “all who are merciful to the evil will eventually be evil to the merciful.”
In the Book of Ruth we see the successful Israeli king comes from the joining of Yehuda and Tamar and of Moav. It requires a joining of stereotypically “masculine” and “feminine” traits, perhaps of “bad” and “good” or maybe “right” and “left.” Kindness and toughness, nationalism and embracing of immigrants, selflessness and fighting for what you and your tribe needs.
When Boaz and Ruth love and appreciate each other’s traits and orientations, we have the formation of the kingdom of Israel.
Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sameach