Boaz and Ruth, Meir and Elisha
How does the apostate Elisha ben Abuyah end up with the biblical Boaz and Ruth, as they spend the night on the threshing floor? (Chapter 3 of the Book of Ruth). In the answer lies a key to redemption.
This page is a compilation of notes for Day 42ff
Jump to Installment: Day 42, Day 43, Day 44, Day 45, Day 46, Day 47, Day 48, Day 49
Ruth and Boaz, Meir and Acher
(for Day 42)
Ruth and Naomi are husband- and childless women with a complicated relationship to the town in which they now reside; at Naomi’s instruction, Ruth has been openly gleaning in the field of their kinsman Boaz and has stealthily followed him to the threshing shelter for the night. When Boaz discovers Ruth at his feet, he praises her loyalty in sticking with Naomi and in foregoing younger and richer men. He promises to marry Ruth if a nearer kinsmen does not choose to do so:
Stay for the night. Then in the morning, if he will act as a redeemer, good! [im-yigalekh tov] Let him redeem. But if he does not want to act as redeemer for you, I will do so myself, as the LORD lives! lie down until morning.
–Ruth 3:11-13 (Jewish Publication Society, 1999)
The phrase “im-yigalekh tov” — rendered above as “…if he will act as a redeemer, good!” — is translated in Midrash Rabbah as though “Tov [good]” were the potential redeemer’s name: “If he, Tov, will redeem you, let him redeem.” With no preamble, this verse launches a commentary beginning with Elisha ben Abuyah riding a horse on Shabbat:
What contemporary editors call “a protracted narrative” ensues. Eventually, the midrash returns to Boaz and Ruth in the harvest shelter, but much of the discussion is about Elisha ben Abuyah (AKA “Acher” [Other]) and his student, Rabbi Meir.
Redemption: Ruth and the Real World
The heart of the conversation in Midrash Rabbah 6:4 is if/how Tov (“good”) can redeem a “bad” start. Did the rabbis shift the discussion to Acher because that was somehow more comfortable than the hinky situation of Ruth and Boaz alone in the night? Were they unable to relate directly to a story centering around women’s concerns? Were troubles of scholarship, one of their own apparently gone “bad,” considered more important? Or were those troubles simply more present?
This story of Acher, inserted here, is an example of the rabbis relating to Ruth’s story in the deepest way they knew. This apparently digressive explication of “Tov, the Redeemer” has a lot to tell us, as we head into the final week of the omer and prepare for reading the Book of Ruth…. (It might even bring us back to Miriam the prophetess and the white space God was so carefully crafting.)
Beginnings and Endings
(for Day 43)
The commentary about Tov begins with Elisha ben Abuyah riding a horse on Shabbat. This prohibited behavior is a clue that Elisha (Acher), one of the four who entered Pardes, is now recognized as an apostate. Meir doesn’t hesitate to greet Elisha, however, and the two immediately start discussing text.
Elisha asks what Meir was teaching, and Meir gives his interpretations of two verses:
- Job 42:12 — “YHVH blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning”
- Ecclesiastes 7:8 — “The end of a matter is better than its beginning”
For both verses, Meir’s interpretations allow for additional blessing and positive change in late life. Elisha objects. He tells Meir that R. Akiva (teacher to both Meir and Elisha) interpreted these same verses to the contrary, stressing that a good end depends on a good beginning and earlier merit. Elisha elaborates with a story about the party his father hosted for his circumcision, concluding: “Because his intention was not for the sake of Heaven, my Torah did not remain with me.”
Elisha continues inquiring about Meir’s teaching. Meir dutifully reports: the verse, “Gold and glass cannot approximate [wisdom]” (Job 28:17), means that “words of Torah…are as difficult to acquire as gold vessels and as easy to lose as glass.” This time it’s Elisha who suggests that later-life change is possible: “Just as vessels of gold and glass, if they break, they have the potential to be restored, so too, a Torah scholar who has lost his learning may recover it.”
Meanwhile, Elisha’s circumcision story includes a note of importance for his story and for ours:
[R. Joshua and R. Eliezer began] with the Torah, and from the Torah to the Prophets, and from the Prophets to the Writings. And the words were as joyous as when they were given from Sinai….
Note: “[Some commentators] explain that the Torah itself derives joy, as it were, from being studied.
….Boaz’s promise to marry Ruth, which launched the rabbis’ story, might seem forgotten. The rabbis’ beginnings/endings discussion is not explicitly linked to Naomi’s changing fortunes. Nor is the “otherness” of Elisha directly compared with that of “Ruth the Moabite.” The 1st Century CE tale/commentary continues without mentioning the Book of Ruth for several more passages. But the biblical and the talmudic tales remain deeply entwined, and the midrash will soon make connections apparent…
Going Back and Crossing
(for Day 44)
Rabbi Meir and his teacher, Elisha ben Abuyah, have been talking Torah on Shabbat, the former on foot and the latter on horseback. Their traveling studies have gone on for some time, according to this tale in Ruth Rabbah, when Elisha tells Meir to turn back.
It emerges from ensuing dialogue that Elisha noticed, while Meir did not, that they had reached the edge of the Sabbath boundary. Although Elisha is visibly violating Shabbat by riding a horse, he’s been monitoring hoof-falls so as to be aware of the distance beyond which travel is forbidden on Shabbat. Meir wonders why a man of such wisdom would not “turn back” himself.
Elisha says he cannot to do so, explaining:
I was riding my horse and passing behind a synagogue on Yom Kippur which fell on a Sabbath, and I heard a heavenly voice bursting forth and saying, “Return, O wayward sons” [Jeremiah 3:22], Return to Me and I will return to you [Malachi 3:7], with the exception of Elisha ben Avuyah, for he knew My power and he rebelled against Me.”
This scene, travelers on the road, with one urging the other to return — first Elisha urging Meir and then Meir urging Elisha — echoes, however inexactly, Naomi on the road with her daughters-in-law, urging them — first both Orpah and Ruth and then just Ruth — to return.
As noted above, the tale of Meir and Elisha in Ruth Rabbah continues extensively without discussing the Book of Ruth. Before moving on to more explicit links, it’s worthwhile to explore the unmentioned parallels. The points of divergence highlight Elisha’s isolation, Meir’s sorrow, and differences in the boundaries Ruth and Elisha cross:
- Naomi explicitly names what is behind them: ‘Behold, thy sister-in-law is gone back unto her people, and unto her god; return thou after thy sister-in-law.’ (1:15).
- Meir’s remark is understood as a pun suggesting a return on the road and to the Torah Elisha so obviously still knows and studies.
- Orpah goes back, keeping to her life with another god. Ruth goes ahead, moving toward a life of Torah.
- Meir goes back, keeping to his life of Torah. Elisha goes ahead, moving away from a life of Torah.
- Naomi and Ruth go on together, with Ruth promising to part from Naomi only in death.
- Meir and Elisha go on alone, although we soon learn of a link between them persisting beyond death….
Boaz and Meir, Ruth and Elisha
(for Day 45)
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.
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 (op cit.)
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 — is not unlike the way contemporary, 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“)
The Fruit and the Rind
(for Day 46)
Seeing Acher in a dream should inspire “fear of punishment,” according to the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 57b), and seeing this designation, “Another,” in place of a true name, is its own caution.
Rabbi Meir was not a heretic himself, but learned from one (the man formerly known as “Elisha ben Abuyah”), and so nearly lost his name as well (Chagigah 15b). Rabbi Eliezer was excommunicated when he refused to accept the community decision on the oven of Akhnai; he died without being able to teach so many things: 300 (or maybe 3000) laws on just one topic (Sanhedrin 68a). For the rabbis of the Talmud, not being able to share one’s Torah or being unable to share in the name of the teacher was a tragedy.
At one point, the prophet Elijah reports that “[God] utters traditions in the name of all the Rabbis, but in the name of R. Meir [God] does not utter….because he learnt traditions at the mouth of Aher.” When Rabbah ben Shila objects, however: “R. Meir found a pomegranate; he ate [the fruit] within it, and the peel he threw away.” After this defense, God attributes learning to Meir (Chagigah 15b). The same Talmudic passage includes narration about Elisha’s death and whether he was or should be judged.
R. Meir was asked, in the continuation of the commentary on Boaz and Ruth on the threshing floor, whether “they will listen” to his desire to see Elisha in the World to Come. He responds:
Is it not a Mishnah? We may save the container of a scroll together with the scroll, and the container of tefillin together with the tefillin (Shabbat 116b). We may save Elisha in the merit of his Torah.
In this way, Meir goes beyond his colleague’s explanation that he ate the fruit and tossed the rind (learned from Elisha without following his ways). He argues not only for his right to learn from Elisha but for Elisha’s worthiness of salvation.
Redeeming the Fruit/Rind
The Talmud (primarily Chagigah 15a-15b, cited above) already includes extensive narrative about Elisha ben Abuyah and his relationship to Meir. What Ruth Rabbah adds is Meir insisting that Acher and his Torah be saved, using the words above and those paralleling Boaz’s speech to Ruth (Ruth and the White Space).
Alicia Ostriker writes:
Ruth and Boaz, then, represent boundary-crossing, both geographical and moral. What is most marginal becomes the center. What is unacceptably transgressive becomes, in this story, welcome….
Stretching our notion of community and nation, Ruth quietly endorses the acceptance of the Other, the outsider. Here for once, we learn how to make love not war, how to love and accept those who are conventionally supposed to be our enemies. The Book of Ruth is about an erasure of the boundary between one’s own people and the enemy.
— For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book (Rutgers University Press, 2007)
Spreading his cloak like Boaz and using the same words, Meir passionate and compassionate act redeem’s Acher‘s Torah.
The midrash of Elisha and Meir “endorses the acceptance of the Other, the outsider” — perhaps not all his ways, but his Torah, i.e., his essence. If the Book of Ruth is “about erasure of the boundary between one’s own people and the enemy,” placing the story of Elisha and Meir in Ruth Rabbah is a powerful acknowledgement of the fine line between insider and transgressor, the need and possibility for redemption.
Hating Sins, Not Sinners
Perhaps it was from his wife, Beruria, that Meir learned to eat the fruit while tossing out the rind:
There were once some highwaymen in the neighbourhood of R. Meir who caused him a great deal of trouble. R. Meir accordingly prayed that they should die. His wife Beruria said to him: How do you make out [that such a prayer should be permitted]? Because it is written Let hatta’im cease? Is it written hot’im? [pres. part. of the verb “to sin,” hence: “sinners”] It is written hatta’im! [“sins”] Further, look at the end of the verse: and let the wicked
men be no more. Since the sins will cease, there will be no more wicked men! Rather pray for them that they should repent, and there will be no more wicked. He did pray for them, and they repented.
Maybe the two of them learned together to understand more about the relationship between rind and fruit and to honor the whole megillah.
Which One Would You Choose?
More from the “protracted narration,” on Elisha and Meir, in Ruth Rabbah:
They asked R. Meir — “Our master, in the World to Come, if they should ask you whom do you desire [to bring to the World to Come] — your father or your master, what will you reply?” R. Meir replied, “[First] my father and afterward my master.”
The Steve Goodman version:
My baby came to me this mornin’
She said: “I’m kinda confused.
She said: “If me and B.B. King was both drownin’
which one would you choose?”
I said: “Whoa, Baby”
I said: “Whoa, Babe”
I said: “Whoa-oa, Baby —
Baby, I ain’t never heard you play no blues.”
Notes as Fabrangen Counts the Omer (for Day 48 and Day 49)
**Artscroll Midrash Rabbah: Ruth/Esther. New York: Mesorah Publications, 2011.
This edition presents the complete Hebrew text facing a study page which offers a translation of Midrash Rabbah, footnotes, and some contemporary explanations, in English, interspersed with key phrases in Hebrew. (New York 2011)
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NOTE on “Return”: Ruth Rabbah uses the verb chazar [חָזַר] while the prophetic quotes use the verb shav [שָׁב]. See Midrash Rabbah Ruth 6 §4 (NY: Mesorah, 2011).
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