By Rabbi Tuly Weisz
Though it is never explicitly discussed, the Land of Israel is front and center in the Book of Ruth. While the primary characters in this short book do not travel extensively, geography nevertheless plays a critical role in the story.
The story 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.
It seems reasonable that Elimelech would want to save his family from famine. Yet his journey to Moab ends with disastrous consequences. Elimelech dies, his sons marry Moabite women, and then his sons’ lives are also cut short.
Indeed, Elimelech is criticized in Jewish tradition for his decision to leave Israel and go to Moab. A leader of his community, his abandonment of his people and his land during a difficult famine was judged a great transgression.
Why was Elimelech punished for looking out for his family? What is the deeper message here?
When Abraham is called upon to go to Israel, God promises to grant him both land and offspring in order to establish a special nation that would be the source of blessing to the entire world. The twin blessings of land and offspring are repeated to Abraham several times in Genesis (13:14,15, 15:18, 17:8).
Yet when famine strikes shortly after his arrival in the land, Abraham finds refuge in Egypt. In Jacob’s time, he and his family find relief from famine in Egypt as well. How can leaving Israel in the face of famine be considered a sin? If this is exactly what Abraham and Jacob had done, why was Elimelech punished?
According to the Talmud (Bava Batra 91a), Elimelech was punished for abandoning the Land of Israel, and his children were punished for staying there even after their father’s death. Though Abraham and Jacob had both left Israel in response to famine, abandoning the Land of Israel once the Jewish nation had been established there is a sin that warrants punishment.
The famine in the land was not a sign to leave, as it had been in Abraham and Jacob’s times, but rather God’s way of calling attention to the sins of the nation, as described in Deuteronomy (11:16-17). Instead of running away, Elimelech should have stayed and encouraged the people to repent. His abandonment of the Land of Israel at the beginning of the Book of Ruth proves that exile is harmful to the Jew, and that the return to the Land provides the rehabilitation needed not only for the family, but the nation and, ultimately, the entire world.
We must never turn our backs on the Promised Land, especially not in her time of need.