After Meir and Elisha part on the Tiberias road, Ruth Rabbah discusses various explanations for Elisha’s apostasy before returning, finally, to the Book of Ruth. [Skip to blog background. Skip to tonight’s omer count. Review commentary on Ruth and Boaz]
Boaz and Meir
We last saw Ruth and Boaz alone at midnight on the threshing floor, with Boaz promising to redeem Ruth if a nearer kinsman does not:
Stay for the night.
Then in the morning,
if he will act as a redeemer, good!
[im-yigalekh tov, also rendered: “If Tov (Good) will redeem…”]
Let him redeem.
But if he does not want to act as redeemer for you, I will do so myself,
as YHVH lives! lie down until morning.
–Ruth 3:11-13 (Jewish Publication Society, 1999)
This scene, as noted earlier this week launches a long story about Rabbi Meir and his teacher, Elisha ben Abuyah. One might suspect that this strategy — replacing a dramatic, domestic scene for a Torah discussion on the Tiberias road — illustrates discomfort with the woman-centered, sex-charged, morally complex story of Ruth. The punchline, so to speak, suggests otherwise:
Elisha ben Avuyah became ill. They came and told R. Meir, “Elisha, your master, is ill.” [Meir] said to him, “Return!” [Elisha] said, “Is one who repents in a state such as mine accepted?” [R. Meir] answered him, “Is it not written…until the soul is crushed [one may still repent]?” At that time, Elisha ben Avuyah wept, and he died. And R. Meir was happy and he said, “It appears as though my master departed amid repentance.” And when they buried [Elisha], fire came to consume the grave. They came and told R. Meir, “The grave of your master is being burned!”
R. Meir went out and spread his garment over [the burning grave].
[R. Meir] said, “Sleep the night in this world which is entirely night
Then in the morning — to the world that is entirely good
if Tov will redeem you, let him redeem you.
this is the Holy One, blessed is He, as it is stated, God is good to all (Psalms 145:9)
But if he does not want to redeem you, then I will redeem you,
as YHVH lives! Lie down until morning,
And [the fire] subsided.
— Midrash Rabbah Ruth 6 §4**
Ruth and Elisha
The story of Meir and Elisha might include Torah discussions on the highway, but its essence is every bit as domestic, passionate, and morally complex as the story of Ruth and Boaz.
- A) Like Ruth asking Boaz to spread his cloak over her (Ruth 3:9)
- B) Elisha turns to Meir in time of need.
- A) Like Ruth, asked to wait out the night, secure in the knowledge that Boaz is prepared to marry her in the morning if the closer redeemer does not act,
- B) Elisha is asked to wait out the “night” of this world (while Meir still lives), secure in the knowledge that Meir is prepared to use his own merit to redeem him if God does not.
- A) Like Ruth the Moabitess, an outsider from a group thought to “muddle” (see further along in Ruth Rabbah 6:4) Israelite lineage, a woman apparently bringing nothing but debts to a marriage,
- B) Elisha, Acher [“Other”], is the apostate whose very existence threatened the scholarly lineage, a teacher with whom everyone but Meir feared to learn.
Rather than creating distance from the tricky scene on the threshing floor, the midrash is connecting with the text in a way that was deep and personal for the authors, drawing out layers of meaning by bringing their experience into it.
But the personal is not the whole story here: Boaz and Meir use their cloaks to redeem Ruth and Elisha, yes. In doing so, however, they also redeem Torah that might otherwise have been lost….
NOTE: Somewhat ironically, what this midrash does — by using a story of Torah scholars to illuminate a domestic/personal scene in the text — is not unlike the way contemporary midrash, particularly “women’s midrash” of the last few decades, has drawn out layers of meaning by bringing their own, frequently personal/domestic experience into it. Moreover, as we know from centuries of scholarship and from the example of Miriam the prophetess, defender of the Torah’s white space, the lived experience of Torah is as much a part of what was given at Sinai as the ink. (See also “Sibling Prophets” and “Miriam and the White Space“)
**Artscroll Midrash Rabbah: Ruth/Esther. New York: Mesorah Publications, 2011.
RETURN from footnote
Counting the Omer with Fabrangen 5773
Counting the days and weeks of the Omer is one 49-day-long experience, extending from the second night of Passover to the night before Shavuot — the “Feast of Weeks.” Counting each day, within the sequence, is another experience. Pursuing the “continuous thread of revelation” in our lives, beyond Shavuot, is something else again.
Count the Omer with Fabrangen Havurah in Washington, DC by subscribing to this blog. This year’s count is following an evolving midrash and its footnotes, and miscellaneous thoughts. Share your thoughts along the way by contacting songeveryday at gmail and/or posting a comment.
Tonight’s Count and Blessing
During evening prayers, add:
A) (Standard, male address for God:) Barukh ata YHVH, eloheinu melekh ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al sefirat ha-omer.
We praise You, Adonai, Our God, Master of time and space whose commandments add holiness to our lives, Who commanded us to count the omer.
B) (Alternatively, address God as feminine:) Beruchah at yah, eloheinu ruach haolam, asher kidshatnu bemitzvoteha vetzivatnu al sefirat ha’omer
Blessed are You, God, Ruler/Spirit of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.
Ha-yom chamishah v’arba’im yom, shehem shishah sh’vuot u’shlishah yamim la’omer.
Today is day forty-five, making six weeks and three days of the omer.
[This translation and transliteration were borrowed from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and from Jill Hammer’s Omer Calendar of Biblical Women at RitualWell.org. For additional text to accompany the counting, see Five Steps.]