By Rabbi Tuly Weisz
The story of Ruth opens with a famine in the Land of Israel which causes a man, Elimelech, to move his family from Israel to the plains of Moab.
This is not the first time we hear of a famine in Israel in the Bible. Almost as soon as Abraham steps foot in the Promised Land, a fulfillment of God’s command to leave everything behind and follow Him to an unknown place, Abraham finds that there “was a famine in the land.” Abraham chooses to go to Egypt, a land watered by the Nile and therefore less affected by a lack of rainfall and famine. Years later, Jacob goes down with his family to Egypt as a result of famine as well.
Upon reading the first verse in the Book of Ruth, the sensitive reader is reminded of the first famine to strike the land, which is introduced with the very same words, “there was a famine in the land” (Genesis 12:10). Through this introductory phrase and setting, the Hebrew Bible connects the story of the Book of Ruth with the famine in the time of Abraham. Yet when famine strikes Bethlehem during Elimelech’s generation, he chooses to migrate to Moab, a land with a similar climate to that of Bethlehem and most likely affected by the famine as well, rather than to Egypt like Abraham and Jacob did before him.
By alluding to the famine in the time of Abraham, the Book of Ruth wants us to ask: why didn’t Elimelech follow the example of Abraham? Why did he choose Moab over Egypt?
To answer these questions, we must first explain who Moab was and where Moab came from.
Following an argument between the shepherds of Lot and the Shepherds of Abraham, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, chose to live in Sodom, known for its wickedness and immorality, instead of making his home in the Land of Israel. Though he was originally raised by his righteous uncle Abraham, the paradigm of kindness, Lot eventually became the “spiritual heir” of Sodom, and passed on the perverted moral compass that he had acquired during his time in Sodom to his children.
Following the destruction of Sodom, Lot’s daughters, in their supposedly noble desire to perpetuate their family line, concocted a plot to get their father drunk with wine and seduced him so that they both ended up pregnant with his child. Moab was the son of Lot and his oldest daughter.
The two defining traits of the nation of Moab in the Bible are a perverse relationship with kindness and a lack of sexual morality. These two behaviors became evident when the descendants of Abraham and the descendants of Lot met in the desert following the Exodus from Egypt.
The Bible describes how the promiscuous Moabite women, themselves a product of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter, seduced the Israelite men in the desert (Numbers 25:1). Furthermore, just like the people of Sodom, the nation of Moab exhibited a lack of hospitality and kindness towards the Jewish people in the desert when they failed to greet them with bread and water on the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt (Deuteronomy 23:5).
These two rival nations grow apart so much that the Bible concludes, “No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the community of Hashem; none of his descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall be admitted into the congregation of Hashem.” (Deuteronomy 23:4-5). Their stinginess and sexual immorality, so antithetical to the values of the children of Abraham, has no place in the “congregation of God.”
With this background, Elimelech’s choice to go to Moab is even more perplexing. Why would he immigrate to a land that is so incompatible with Jewish values and join a perpetual enemy of the Jewish people? Why did Elimelech, a descendant of Abraham, choose Moab of all places?
As descendants of Abraham, the value of kindness is built into the DNA of the Jewish people and is something that every Jew must aspire to. Yet the Sages tell us that Elimelech was motivated to leave the Land of Israel because of stinginess. Elimelech was blessed with wealth, yet he did not want to share it with the many poor people that were knocking on his door for handouts as a result of the famine. Based on what we have learned about Moab, we can now understand why Elimelech chose to go there.
Elimelech’s move to Moab was triggered by stinginess and a lack of kindness towards his poor brethren. In that way, he behaved more like a descendant of Lot than a descendant of Abraham. He therefore felt comfortable in Moab, a place known for its stinginess and lack of kindness. In Moab, caring for the poor was not a communal value, and so Elimelech would not have to worry about poor people coming and begging him to sustain them.
The land of Moab stands in stark contrast to the Land of Israel. While Moab breeds selfishness and miserliness, in the Land of Israel, the land given by God to Abraham and his descendants, the value of charity is built into the very fabric of the land. Biblical law requires farmers in Israel to leave some of their produce in the fields for the poor, a commandment highlighted in the second chapter of the Book of Ruth. Furthermore, the land itself cannot tolerate immorality, and the prophets remind us time and again that corrupt behavior will lead the Jewish people to be exiled from their land.
It is for this reason that Israel was the land chosen as an inheritance for the descendants of Abraham, the paradigm of kindness. Only in the Land of Israel can the Jewish people reach their full potential.