Humans were created to make choices. In Genesis 1:26, the creation of humans begins with God stating, “Let us make humans in our image, in our likeness.” Since a fundamental principle of Judaism is God’s incorporeality, how can humans be created in God’s image? Rashi, citing the Midrash, opines that humans are like angels; it is our infinite souls that lend us our godliness. Most of the other classical commentaries, however, disagree. Almost all — Nachmanides, Abarbanel, and Seforno, to name a few — identify our intellect, our cognition, our creativity, as the manifestation of our godliness. To be “in the image of God” is to think and to learn, and to make informed — and hopefully morally-guided — decisions.
Moreover, for Nachmanides, the entire purpose of putting the Creation narrative, and all of the subsequent narratives, into the written Torah, is to show us the connection between our choices and their consequences. Every choice that humans make, from eating of the Tree of Knowledge onwards, has consequences. In contrast with most ancient beliefs (and many modern ones), the Torah presents us with a Divine gift: a share in our own destinies and the power to shape them. When our choices are guided by selfish motives, without thought to their impact on other humans or to what God has instructed us, the outcomes are inevitably disastrous. On the other hand, when our choices are guided by God and morality, the consequences are astounding, sometimes even miraculous. In either case, the choice is firmly ours to make.
Megillat Ruth is a book about choices and their consequences. The book opens with Elimelech choosing to leave Israel during a time of famine and moving his family to Moav. The Midrash explains that Elimelech was a wealthy tribal leader; he could have, and should have, supported his community’s spiritual and physical hunger. Instead, he moves to Moav, which is not only an enemy state, but one whose people are so morally bankrupt that they are forbidden by Torah law to convert to Judaism. (Even Amalekites and the seven Canaanite nations are permitted to convert.) Elimelech’s sons choose to marry Moabite women. All three men die; the juxtaposition of their choices and their deaths makes the causal link inevitable.
Naomi, Elimelech’s widow, chooses at that point to return to Israel. Her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, choose to go with her. At a literal and metaphorical crossroads, Naomi entreats her daughters-in-law to return to Moav. Through five verses, Naomi delineates her gratitude for their loyalty and their kindness, and urges them to go home for their own sake. However, at the end of Ruth 1:13, Naomi finally exclaims, “ki mar li me’od mikem!” which can be understood to mean, “I am very bitter because of you!”
We are then told that “vatisenah kolan, vativkenah od” — “they raised their voices and cried more” (Ruth 1:14). The Midrash Tanchuma is quick to point out that the verb tisenah is written without the expected root-letter aleph. It observes that this lack of a letter indicates a weakening of strength or commitment. It is at this moment that Orpah chooses to return to her home and Ruth chooses to “cling to” Naomi.
At first glance, Orpah’s decision seems not only logical but sensitive. She hears what Naomi is saying and accedes to her wishes. Yet Orpah’s decision belies some fundamental flaw, one that will only be demonstrated in her great-grandson, Goliath. The schism between Orpah and Ruth grows geometrically; the great-grandson of Ruth and the great-grandson of Orpah are not only opponents in battle, but are archetypes of two inimical value systems. Goliath represents might making right; David represents adherence to, and trust in, a higher power, a faith in which the relationship between humans is parallel to a relationship with the Divine. Goliath represents the moment; David represents the past, present and future. Goliath is unabashedly arrogant; David is the symbol of humility before God and service to people.
What was so wrong about Orpah’s choice and so right about Ruth’s? I believe the answer lies in the use of the Hebrew verb davkah to describe Ruth’s clinging to Naomi. This verb indicates a deep connection on an emotional and spiritual, rather than physical, level. It is a verb used to describe both our relationship with our spouses and our relationship with God. It is a putting aside of the “aleph” — the “ani,” the “I” and a willingness to make oneself vulnerable. It is considering the needs of the other and the covenantal terms of the relationship. Ruth succeeds in doing this; Orpah fails.
The rest of the story follows from that choice. Ruth chooses to accept Judaism and go with Naomi; Naomi takes responsibility for her actions and acknowledges that what has befallen her — loss of husband, family, status, and wealth — are all because God has “born witness” and held her to account. Boaz chooses the path of law and charity, but also goes beyond the letter of the law in his kindness. His kinsman, on the other hand, chooses to walk away from the levirate responsibility of marrying Ruth because it might sully his reputation. Both Ruth and Boaz forever change Jewish history and Jewish law with their choices: female Moabites are allowed to convert, and the foundation for the Davidic line is laid. And Orpah’s choice is also immortalized: something that may seem acceptable at the time will emerge as unacceptable later on if one’s motives are selfish, rather than selfless.
For many, the theme of Megillat Ruth is “kindness” or “converting to Judaism.” But for me, Megillat Ruth is a story about choices, and, particularly, how choices have wide-ranging and long-lasting ramifications.
We are created in the image of God. The link between our corporeality and our divinity is our sapience. Our ability to choose defines our present and inevitably influences our future. Accepting the Torah and leading a Torah-guided life is a choice we make daily. We are our choices. And therefore we are urged, even commanded, to choose good and to choose life.