THOUGHTS ON SHAVUOT
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
This essay is dedicated in memory of Ellen Lebovits.
The Book of Ruth begins with a departure by a Judahite family from its hometown of Bethlehem to the fields of Moab. Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion left the Land of Israel during a famine. Shortly after their arrival in enemy country, Elimelech died. His sons married Moabite women and remained abroad for nearly ten years. Then, both Mahlon and Chilion died, leaving Naomi bereft of family other than her two foreign daughters-in-law (Ruth 1:1-5).
Though Naomi bemoaned the fact that God brought misfortune upon her and was the Author of her bitter lot (1:20-21), Scripture nowhere states that Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion’s deaths were Divine punishment for misdeeds. Nonetheless, it is easy for the reader to make that assumption. The sages’ expositions on the opening verses of Ruth all have as their premise that God smote the men in Naomi’s family for their egregious sins.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai posited that Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion were prestigious leaders of Judahite society. Their grievous transgression was their abandonment of Eretz Yisrael (Baba Bathra 91a). Rashi explained further that Elimelech was a wealthy miser who preferred to flee his homeland rather than to extend a charitable hand to his fellow countrymen.
That Elimelech was a prominent figure in Judahite society with lofty political aspirations is derived from a homiletic interpretation of his name:אלי תבוא מלכות “Upon me the kingship should be conferred” (Ruth Rabbah 2:5). Yet someone who forsakes his kinsmen in their hour of dire need is necessarily unworthy of being entrusted with communal authority. The Midrash infers that Elimelech’s abandonment of his ancestral home was regarded by Scripture as disgraceful. Whereas Scripture records in great detail the material possessions of the returnees to Zion in Ezra’s cohort, Elimelech’s departure from the Land of Judah is described plainly, referencing only the people and not an inventory of their wealth (Ruth Rabbah 1:5).
Another Midrashic text, while critical of Elimelech for selfishly trying to save himself and his family and being indifferent to the plight of others whom he left behind, also criticizes him for failing to serve as a moralizing preacher to his fellow Judahites. The Midrash claims that in the chaotic period of the Judges, Israel was punished with famine for its failure to implement a fair system of justice. Elimelech was a powerful figure who could have used his influence to change society for the better; yet he made no effort to bring his compatriots back to the proper path (Tanhuma Shemini 9).
Rabbi Joshua ben Korchah emphatically rejected the idea that Elimelech’s family could be faulted for leaving Eretz Yisrael. Had there been even bran available for consumption, they would have stayed. But the famine was so severe that nothing was available to eat. Rather than being punished for migrating, Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion were condemned by God for failing to pray for Heavenly mercy on behalf of their generation (Baba Bathra 91b).
The sages interpreted a cryptic Scriptural passage as referring to the characters in the Book of Ruth. “And Jokim, and the men of Cozeba, and Joash, and Saraph, who married into Moab (I Chronicles 4:22).” Mahlon and Chilion, who married Moabitesses, are identified as Joash and Saraf, though it is uncertain which set of names was real and which monikers ripe for homiletic interpretation. The name Joash suggests utter despair and the abandonment of hope in God’s redemption of Israel, or the loss of hope in the promises of the Torah, or disillusionment and a downcast attitude toward life itself. The name Saraf suggests that he burned a Torah scroll or that he burned his offspring in the worship of false gods (Sifre Numbers 88, Sifre Zuta 10).
When one reviews the rabbinic literary sources concerning Mahlon and Chilion, one observes a striking emphasis not on their exogamy but on their treasonous behavior. Instead of sustaining belief in the positive destiny of the Israelite nation and casting their lot with their fellow citizens in a time of collective crisis, they sought to protect their private material interests and were not concerned about the fate of their countrymen. By so interpreting a story set chronologically in the ancient era of the Judges, the rabbis retrojected the concerns of their own time onto the distant past.
In the post-Destruction era, and especially in the Amoraic period, the rabbis of Eretz Yisrael were worried that Jews would leave the Holy Land for safer and more prosperous conditions in the Diaspora. It is estimated that the Jewish demographic majority in Eretz Yisrael was lost sometime in the fourth century CE. It happened not because of a “Galut Edom,” or Roman Exile; that is a notion more mythical than historical. Rather, the combination of an influx of gentiles and the out-migration of Jews fleeing difficult conditions tipped the demographic balance.
The rabbis fought Jewish out-migration using the tools of both Halakhah and Aggadah. Rabbi Hanina was asked by a man, whose potential levirate wife lived in the Diaspora, whether he could leave Israel temporarily to satisfy his fraternal obligation to his deceased brother by marrying the widow. Rabbi Hanina caustically rebuked the questioner, asserting that God smote his brother for the terrible sin of abandoning Israel and that it would be unthinkable for anyone to repeat the fatal error of leaving the country (Ketuboth 111a). Rabbi Judah ruled that one who returned from overseas on the Intermediate Festival days was forbidden to shave because his very departure from Israel had been unlawful (Moed Katan 14a).
The Midrash tells of Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua and Rabbi Yochanan Ha-sandler, who left Israel to study Torah with Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra at Nisibis. When they reached Sidon, Lebanon, they remembered Eretz Yisrael. They lifted their eyes heavenward, cried a river of tears, tore their garments, and recalled the words of Scripture: “For ye are to pass over the Jordan to go in to possess the land which the LORD your God giveth you, and ye shall possess it, and dwell therein. And ye shall observe to do all the statutes and the ordinances which I set before you this day (Deuteronomy 11:31-32).” They understood from the juxtaposition of verses that settlement in the Promised Land is equal to all the other precepts combined (Sifre Deuteronomy 80).
Maimonides ruled that one is permitted to leave Eretz Yisrael temporarily for the sake of advanced Torah study, to find a wife, to save endangered Jews from their heathen tormentors, or to earn a profit from a commercial venture. He further ruled that in times of famine and severe economic hardship, it is permissible to settle in the Diaspora. But the Rambam also acknowledged that, even in adverse circumstances and when it is technically permitted, it remains antithetical to piety for a Jew to leave his ancestral homeland. He cited the examples of Mahlon and Chilion as a warning of the fate that could befall those who give up on the Holy Land (Hilkhot Melakhim 5:9).
In modern times, the phenomenon of Jews leaving Eretz Yisrael – yeridah - cannot be ignored. Expatriate Israelis are ubiquitous in Diaspora Jewish communities. Several Israeli Prime Ministers said unpleasant things about yordim, calling them “failed Zionists” or “weaklings.” This seems unhelpful if the goal is to attract people back to Israel. Certainly, lifelong Diaspora Jews have no standing to condemn those sabras who flee the Middle East conflict or the often high cost of living in Israel. What minimally can be required from Jews who leave Israel is that they not abandon Israel in their hearts, and that they remain emotionally invested in the fate and wellbeing of Medinat Yisrael and continue to advocate for their country in the hostile arena of public opinion.
Mahlon and Chilion were guilty of ייאוש. They gave up hope, lost interest, and moved on, with lives divorced from Jewish national concerns. Today’s yordim must not repeat that mistake.