Famine

By Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David (Greg Killian)

 


Understanding Famine: 1

In the beginning: 2

Peshat: 3

Remez: 3

Drash: 4

Sod: 6

Reasons for Famine: 6

Major Theme: 10

 

Understanding Famine:

 

In this study I would like to understand the nature and meaning of a famine. I am specifically looking to understand the PaRDeS perspective of a famine as it relates to the famine detailed in Megillat Ruth.

 

Famine, by definition, is a lack of food. The Torah often uses bread to represent food. In Megillat Ruth we see that the text specifically tells us that famine is a lack of bread:

 

Ruth 1:6 Then she arose with her daughters in law, that she might return from the country of Moab: for she had heard in the country of Moab how that HaShem had visited his people in giving them bread.

 

Thus we can view famine as a lack of bread. This suggests that we will be examining the meaning of bread at the PaRDeS level and then viewing famine as the lack of “bread”.

 

What are the effects of a famine? Those who are starving will learn to eat anything that has a chance to bring them nourishment. A moldy crumb will be eagerly consumed, and will be very satisfying. Those who are starving, learn to be content with small portions that are not necessarily edible.

 

During a famine, mortality is concentrated among children and the elderly. A consistent demographic fact is that in all recorded famines, male mortality exceeds female. This has profound implications for the Bnei Yisrael when you consider that the elderly were the ones with great wisdom and the young were the impressionable ones who most needed the elder’s wisdom. In a famine, they both perished and the community was further devastated.

 

During our time in the wilderness, after our departure from Egypt, the Bnei Yisrael bitterly complained to Moshe about the lack of water, and then (after the supply of matza which they had brought from Egypt ran out) about the lack of food. They, who only days before had sung to HaShem, “Who is like You among the heavenly powers, HaShem”, were now bitterly cursing their imminent starvation and implicit abandonment by HaShem: “If only we had died by the hand of HaShem in the land of Egypt”. There are no true believers in a famine. Such are the effects of a famine!

 

These famine effects have some very profound implications when we consider the meaning of a famine at the remez, drash, and the sod levels. We will examine the implications of this when we look at those levels.

 

Like the Book of Iyov, Megillat Ruth opens with a series of catastrophes occurring in one family, in five consecutive episodes:

  1. A man walks from Bethlehem to Moab;
  2. He is joined by his wife and two sons;
  3. He dies, leaving behind the wife and sons;
  4. The family is enlarged by the sons’ marriages, then decreased by the sons’ deaths, leaving three widows;
  5. The three widows are on their way to Bethlehem.

 

Avraham Avinu also left eretz Israel seemingly for the same reasons that Elimelech left:

 

Genesis 12:10 And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine [was] grievous in the land.

 

Notice the similarity of the words that Torah uses to describe these two departures:

 

Ruth 1:1 Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Beth-lehem-judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons.

 

They both left because of a famine. They both “sojourned” in a foreign land.

 

However, there are certain differences between these two verses. The famine in the days of Avraham Avinu is described as “grievous”. There is no such modifier used to describe the famine in the days of Elimelech. The Torah mentions that Elimelech took his family, while no such mention is made, initially, for Avraham Avinu.

 

Avraham Avinu chooses Mitzrayim, most likely because that land is watered by the Nile river rather than by rainfall. Avraham Avinu traveled a great distance to a land watered by the Nile and not dependent on HaShem for rain. So, why does Elimelech choose the land of Moav? What is there about the land of Moav that would attract a wealthy, aristocratic Jew in time of famine?

 

The ending for these two stories is quite different. Elimelech never return from the land of Moav. Elimelech, his unborn child, and his two grown sons all die in Moav. All of his wealth is also consumed.

 

Avraham Avinu, on the other hand, returns from Mitzrayim with fabulous gifts and his wife Sarah returns with Paro’s daughter as her maid.

 

Why is the outcome of these two stories so different? Why does HaShem bless Avraham Avinu and smite Elimelech? The text suggests that HaShem was purposely sending Avraham to Egypt. In addition, there wasn’t a community that was depending on Avraham for encouragement and support. This is in contrast to Elimelech who was clearly one who could provide for his people. The community was depending on Elimelech. It would appear that HaShem is not just punishing Elimelech for leaving the land, but also for shirking responsibilities and for not coming back in a timely manner.

 

Elimelech went to a land very close to Eretz Yisrael. So close he could have traded in Moab and lived in Eretz Yisrael. If the famine did not cross the border, then surely this would be a clear sign from HaShem. Additionally, Moav was a land known for it’s miserliness:

 

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 23:3-4 An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of HaShem; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of HaShem for ever: Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee.

 

In the beginning:

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 3:17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

 

In Amos 8:11, the Prophets speaks of the end of days, “Behold days are coming…”, when there will be a famine for the Word of HaShem. In Matityahu 5:6, Mashiach ben Yoseph praises those who hunger and thirst for Torah. And in Yochanan 7:37, we see Mashiach ben David inviting those that are thirsty, to come to Him, on the last day.

 

Thus we have now connected the end with the beginning,[1] and with Megillat Ruth. Adam HaRishon began the process and Mashiach ben David will complete the process.

 

Peshat:

 

The Mishna speaks about famine and relates it to drought, or a lack of rain or of tumult:

 

Avot Chapter 5 Mishnah 8. Even kinds of punishment come to the world for seven categories of transgression: When some of them [i.e. the people] give tithes, and others do not give tithes, A famine from drought comes, and some go hungry, and others have plenty; when they have all decided not to gives tithes, a famine from tumult comes…

 

At the peshat level, famine is a lack of food. The Torah normally uses bread when it speaks of food in a generic sense. So, famine is a lack of bread.

 

As we mentioned before, a famine will tend to desensitize those that are starving. They will tend be satisfied with very little, and the quality of the food will not matter. Even garbage will become acceptable. The Bnei Yisrael will no longer care whether the food is kosher. Whether it is fit to nourish the soul, as well as the body, will no longer matter. In such a society, kosher food will be impossible to find. Kosher eateries will disappear and kosher food will no longer be stocked in the supermarkets.

 

Remez:

 

At the remez level, a lack of bread is an allegory for Torah. As it says:

 

Pirke Avot 3:17 Where there is no bread, there will be no Torah. Where there is no Torah, there will be no bread.

 

The Nazarean Codicil also equates Torah and bread:

 

Luqas (Luke) 4:4 And Yeshua answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.

 

Thus we can see that famine is a lack of Torah, at the remez level. The Prophet Amos speaks of just such a famine:

 

Amos 8:11 Behold, the days come, saith the Lord HaShem, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of HaShem:

 

Yalkut Shimoni says that where there is a lack of Torah a famine for food also occurs. There was a famine in the days before Adam went forth from Gan Eden. In the same way there was a famine before Elimelech went forth from the promised land.

 

Famine is the judgment that comes upon the world when justice is delayed or perverted. The famine for bread was the physical manifestation of a famine for spiritual sustenance. The Word of HaShem, Torah, is also called bread[2], and because the people of Israel had neglected to nourish their souls by the study of Torah, neither were their bodies nourished. This is accordance with the words of the Talmud that “if there is no Torah, there is no bread” (Pirke Avot). There was a both a hunger for bread and a hunger for Torah when Elimelech abandoned the land of Israel for the land of Moav.

 

Note also that the famine was not in the land of Moav, this should have alerted the Jews that the problem was of a spiritual nature rather then that of a physical nature.

 

At the remez level, a famine for Torah will tend to desensitize those that are starving. They will tend be satisfied with very little in terms of Torah learning, and the quality of the Torah learning will not matter. Even polluted Torah from Christians and messianics will become acceptable. When there is a famine for Torah, we will no longer demand a normal healthy “meal” from our Hakhamim. We will be quite satisfied by pitiful portions of spoiled and inedible lessons from the “garbage cans” of false Torah teachers.

 

Drash:

 

The Hebrew word for famine: רעב ra’ab (ra’av). It comes from a root רעב ra’eb which means to be hungry (Strong’s 07458). It’s gematria is 272.

ערב (erev - evening) also has a gematria of 272.

בער (ba’ar - burn) also has a gematria of 272.

 

Bread is the unity of many grains of wheat coming together for a common and higher purpose. In addition, we break bread with the community for fellowship. Bread thus binds the community together.

 

Since bread = Torah at the remez level, when we move to the drash level this analogy must speak to the king, it must speak to Mashiach. To understand this connection we need to look at some pasukim which address this:

 

The Midrash indicates that the world is destined to have ten famines which HaShem will send as part of the Messianic redemption:

 

Midrash Rabbah - Ruth I:4 THAT THERE WAS A FAMINE IN THE LAND. Ten famines have come upon the world.

 

1.               One in the days of Adam,

2.               one in the days of Lamech,

3.               one in the days of Abraham,

4.               one in the days of Isaac,

5.               one in the days of Jacob,

6.               one in the days of Elijah,

7.               one in the days of Elisha,

8.               one in the days of David,

9.               one in the days when the judges judged – mentioned in the days of the Book of Ruth, and

10.            one which is destined still to come upon the world.[3][175]

 

One in the days of Adam, as it is said, Cursed is the ground for thy sake (Gen. III, 17); one in the days of Lamech, as it is said, From the ground which the Lord hath cursed (ib. V, 29); one in the days of Abraham, as it is said, And there was a famine in the land; and Abram went down into Egypt (ib. XII, 10); one in the days of Isaac, as it is said, And there was a famine in the land, beside the first famine (ib. XXVI, 1); one in the days of Jacob, as it is said, For these two years hath the famine been in the land (ib. XLV, 6); one in the days of Elijah, as it is said, There shall not be dew nor rain these years (I Kings XVII, 1); one in the days of Elisha, as it is said, And there was a great famine in Samaria (II Kings VI, 25); one in the days of David, as it is said, And there was a famine in the days of David three years (II Sam. XXI, 1); one in the days of the Shoftim (Judges), as it is said, THERE WAS A FAMINE IN THE LAND; and one which is destined to come to the world, as it is said, That I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord (Amos VIII, 11).

 

Midrash Rabbah - Genesis XXV:3 3. WHICH COMETH FROM THE GROUND WHICH THE LORD HATH CURSED (V, 29). Famine visited the world ten times. Once in the days of Adam: Cursed is the ground for thy sake (Gen. III, 17); once in the days of Lamech: WHICH COMETH FROM THE GROUND WHICH THE LORD HATH CURSED; Once in the days of Abraham: And there was a famine in the land (ib. XII, 10); once in the days of Isaac: And there was famine in the land, beside the first famine that was in the days of Abraham (ib. XXVI,1); once in the days of Jacob: For these two years hath the famine been in the land (ib. XLV, 6); once in the days when the judges judged: And it came to pass in the days when the judges judged, that there was a famine in the land  (Ruth I, 1); once in the days of Elijah: As the Lord, the God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years (I Kings XVII, 1); once in the days of Elisha: And there was a great famine in Samaria (II Kings VI, 25); one famine which travels about in the world; and once in the Messianic future: Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord (Amos VIII, 11).

 

There were ten famines that affected the entire world:

 

1.   In the time of Adam when he sinned and was cursed. God had said, "Cursed is the ground because of you" (Genesis 3:17).

 

2.   In the time of Lemekh. He therefore said, "The soil which God has cursed." He could not have been speaking of the famine that was in Adam's time, since if this had lasted for ten generations, people could not have lived. Actually, there was one famine in the time of Adam, and a second one during Lemech's lifetime.

 

3.   In the time of Abraham (see Genesis 12:10).

 

4.   In the time of Isaac (see Genesis 26:1).

 

5.   In the time of Jacob (see Genesis 41:56).

 

6.  In the period of the Judges (see Ruth 1:1).

 

7.   In the time of King David (2 Samuel 21:1).

 

8.  In the time of Elijah (1 Kings 18:2).

 

9.   In the time of Elisha (2 Kings 6:25).

 

10.The tenth famine exists continually and constantly increases. There is no way of satiating this hunger. This is not a hunger for food or water, but a great hunger for the mysteries of the Torah. [Regarding this, God said, "I will send a famine in the land. Not a famine of bread nor a thirst for water, but one of hearing God's word" (Amos 8:11).

 

According to the Jerusalem Targum, the famine in the days of Ruth was one of ten famines from HaShem to chastise his people:

 

HaShem has decreed ten grievous famines to take place in the world, to punish the inhabitants of the earth, before the coming of Mashiach the king. The first in the days of Adam; the second in the days of Lamech; the third in the days of Avraham; the fourth in the days of Yitzhak; the fifth in the days of Yaaqov; the sixth in the days of Boaz, who is called Abstan (Ibzan) the just, of Bethlehem-Judah; the seventh in the days of David, king of Israel; the eighth in the days of Elijah the prophet; the ninth in the days of Elisha, in Samaria; the tenth is yet to come, and it is not a famine of bread or of water but of hearing the word of prophecy from the mouth of the Lord; and even now this famine is grievous in the land of Israel.

 

Another Targum also speaks of these ten famines:

 

1- It happened in the days of the judge of judges (Ibzan - judge par excellence) that there was a severe famine in the land of Israel. Ten severe famines (cf. Targum Shir Ha-Shirim 1:1 has a list of ten songs, and Targum Esther II 1:1 a list of ten kings) were ordained by Heaven to be in the world, from the day that the world was created until the time that the king Mashiach should come, by which to reprove the inhabitants of the earth. The first famine was in the days of Adam, the second famine was in the days of Lamech, the third famine was in the days of Avraham. The fourth famine was in the days of Isaac, the fifth famine was in the days of Jacob, the sixth famine was in the days of Boaz, who is called Ibzan the Righteous (cf. Baba Bathra 91a, Judges 12:8,10), who was from Bethlehem, Judah. The seventh famine was in the days of David, King of Israel, the eighth famine was in the days of Elijah the prophet, the ninth famine was in the days of Elisha in Samaria. The tenth famine is to be in the future, not a famine of eating bread, nor a drought of drinking water, but of hearing the word of prophecy from before the L-rd (Amos 8:11). And when that famine was severe in the land of Israel, a great man went out from Bethlehem Judah, and went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.

 

By focusing the number of famines to ten, the Midrash is explicitly pointing to Mashiach and to the unity He will bring. I explored the number ten and it’s relationship to Mashiach in my paper titled: Ten.

 

This suggests that at the drash level, bread is the unity of the community as exemplified by the king who is The Mashiach. To put it concisely, at the drash level, famine is the lack of a king; famine is the lack of Mashiach ben David.

 

The Midrash also speaks of a series of five famines that includes the famine in Megillat Ruth:

 

Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LXIV:2 And it came to pass in the days when the judges judged, that there was a famine in the land (Ruth I, 1); once in the days of David: And there was a famine in the days of David  (II Sam. XXI, 1); once in the days of Elijah: As the Lord, the God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years (I Kings XVII, 1); once in the days of Elisha: And there was a great famine in Samaria (II Kings VI, 25); one famine which travels about in the world; and one in the Messianic future, as it says, Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord (Amos VIII, 11).

 

At the drash level, a famine for Torah justice and rule will tend to desensitize those that are starving. They will tend be satisfied with very little in terms of Torah justice and non-Torah kings will be quite acceptable, and the quality of the justice will not matter. Even polluted justice from Christians, messianics, and even secular and atheistic judges and kings will become acceptable. When there is a famine for justice and rule, we will no longer demand a normal healthy “meal” from our kings and other judges. We will be quite satisfied by pitiful portions of spoiled and inedible justice from the “garbage cans” of anti-Torah kings.

 

Sod:

 

At the sod level, famine speaks to issues of cosmic significance. At the drash level we saw that famine is the lack of unity in the community. At the sod level, famine speaks to the lack of unity of the ten sefirot and the men of the community. Famine has implications both above and below.

 

The bread from heaven is the cosmic terminology for this sod level:

 

Shemot (Exodus) 16:4 Then said HaShem unto Moses, Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a certain rate every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law, or no.

 

Yochanan (John) 6:51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

 

At the sod level, a famine for the unity of the sefirot and the ten men who rule on earth will tend to desensitize those that are starving. They will tend be satisfied with disunity and will have very little desire for HaShem and His oneness. Even the so called “community” of the Christians, messianics, and even secular and atheists will become acceptable. When there is a famine for unity, we will no longer demand a normal healthy “meal” from our gods. We will be quite satisfied by pitiful portions of spoiled and inedible love (hate) from the “garbage cans” of an anti-Torah society.

 

Reasons for Famine:

 

The Sages of the Talmud have given us one reason for a famine:

 

Berachot 55a R. Johanan said: There are three things which the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself proclaims, namely, famine, plenty, and a good leader. ‘Famine’, as it is written: The Lord hath called for a famine. ‘Plenty’, as it is written: I will call for the corn and will increase it. ‘A good leader’, as it is written: And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, See I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri.

 

One of the three things “which the Holy One, blessed be He, proclaims in person”, famine was regarded as the direct result of transgressions. This is specifically mentioned in the Tanach where the rule is that famine and drought are either threatened or suffered for sins:

 

Vayikra (Leviticus) 26:15-26 And if ye shall despise my statutes, or if your soul abhor my judgments, so that ye will not do all my commandments, but that ye break my covenant: 16 I also will do this unto you; I will even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart: and ye shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. 17 And I will set my face against you, and ye shall be slain before your enemies: they that hate you shall reign over you; and ye shall flee when none pursueth you. 18 And if ye will not yet for all this hearken unto me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins. 19 And I will break the pride of your power; and I will make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass: 20 And your strength shall be spent in vain: for your land shall not yield her increase, neither shall the trees of the land yield their fruits. 21 And if ye walk contrary unto me, and will not hearken unto me; I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins. 22 I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number; and your high ways shall be desolate. 23 And if ye will not be reformed by me by these things, but will walk contrary unto me; 24 Then will I also walk contrary unto you, and will punish you yet seven times for your sins. 25 And I will bring a sword upon you, that shall avenge the quarrel of my covenant: and when ye are gathered together within your cities, I will send the pestilence among you; and ye shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy. 26 And when I have broken the staff of your bread, ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and they shall deliver you your bread again by weight: and ye shall eat, and not be satisfied.

 

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 11:16 Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; 17 And HaShem’s wrath be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which HaShem giveth you.

 

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 28:15 But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of HaShem thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee: 16 Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field. 17 Cursed shall be thy basket and thy store. 18 Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. 19 Cursed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and cursed shalt thou be when thou goest out. 20 HaShem shall send upon thee cursing, vexation, and rebuke, in all that thou settest thine hand unto for to do, until thou be destroyed, and until thou perish quickly; because of the wickedness of thy doings, whereby thou hast forsaken me. 21 HaShem shall make the pestilence cleave unto thee, until he have consumed thee from off the land, whither thou goest to possess it. 22 HaShem shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish. 23 And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron.

 

The Midrash agrees with the Torah that famine comes as a result of transgressions:

 

Midrash Rabbah - Ruth Prologue III ‘But as for the pure, etc.,’ refers to the Holy One, blessed be He, who deals with them with uprightness in this world and yet gives them their full reward in the future, like a craftsman who works faithfully for his employer. At that moment the Holy One, blessed be He, says, ‘My children are rebellious; yet to destroy them is impossible, to take them back to Egypt is impossible, change them for another people I cannot; what then shall I do to them? I will chastise them with suffering and try them with famine in the days when the judges judge.’ That is the meaning of the verse, AND IT CAME TO PASS IN THE DAYS WHEN THE JUDGES JUDGED THAT THERE WAS A FAMINE IN THE LAND.

 

Amos interprets occurrences of these calamities as prods to repentance, warning notices of HaShem’s wrath aimed to bring the people to contrition and thus avert final destruction:

 

Amos 4:6 And I also have given you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and want of bread in all your places: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith HaShem. 7 And also I have withholden the rain from you, when there were yet three months to the harvest: and I caused it to rain upon one city, and caused it not to rain upon another city: one piece was rained upon, and the piece whereupon it rained not withered. 8 So two or three cities wandered unto one city, to drink water; but they were not satisfied: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith HaShem. 9 I have smitten you with blasting and mildew: when your gardens and your vineyards and your fig trees and your olive trees increased, the palmerworm devoured them: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith HaShem.

 

The tendency of the Hakhamim was to make famine the punishment for specific transgressions, the failure to give the tithes and other dues from one’s produce, as a kind of quid pro quo:

 

Avot Chapter 5 Mishnah 8. Seven kinds of punishment come to the world for seven categories of transgression: 1) When some of them give tithes, and others do not give tithes, a famine from drought comes-some go hungry, and others are satisfied. 2) When they have all decided not to give tithes, a famine from tumult and drought comes; 3) [When they have, in addition, decided] not to set apart the dough-offering, an all-consuming famine comes. 4) Pestilence comes to the world for sins punishable by death according to the Torah, but which have not been referred to the court, and for neglect of the law regarding the fruits of the sabbatical year.

 

Shabbath 32b For the crime of robbery locusts make invasion, famine is prevalent, and people eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, for it is said, Hear this word, ye kine of Bashan, that are in the mountain of Samaria, which oppress the poor, which crush the needy.

 

So, failure to obey Torah brought famine. On the flip side, our Hakhamim also saw the contrary promise of abundance as a reward for bringing tithes based on a reading from the Tanach:

 

Malachi 3:10 Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith HaShem of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it. 11 And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast her fruit before the time in the field, saith HaShem of hosts.

 

If the Bnei Yisrael decide not to tithe, then famine comes not only as a result of lack of rain, but also as a result of war. Since people will be out fighting war, they are not able to tend to their lands and many more people will go hungry.

 

In Meam Loez we find that famine is the judgment that comes upon the world when justice is delayed (inuy ha’din ענוי הדין) or perverted (ivuth ha’din עוות הדין). In this sense, then “It was in the days of the judging of the judges”; that is, the judges of the heavenly tribunal judged the judges of the generation. Their decree: There was to be a famine in the land. The famine for bread was the physical manifestation of a famine for spiritual sustenance. The Talmud agreed with this outlook:

 

Shabbath 33a As a punishment for delay of judgment, perversion of judgment, spoiling of judgment, and neglect of Torah, sword and spoil increase, pestilence and famine come, people eat and are not satisfied, and eat their bread by weight, for it is written, and I will bring a sword upon you, that shall execute the vengeance of the covenant:

 

The word of HaShem, Torah, is also called bread:

 

Mishlei (Proverbs) 9:1-5 Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars: 2 She hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine; she hath also furnished her table. 3 She hath sent forth her maidens: she crieth upon the highest places of the city, 4 Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him, 5 Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine I have mingled. 6 Forsake the foolish, and live; and go in the way of understanding.

 

Because the Bnei Yisrael had neglected to nourish their souls by the study of Torah, neither were their bodies nourished.

 

 Ruth 1:1 It happened in the days of the judging of the judges…

 

This pasuk introduces the anguish of a famine in Eretz Yisrael which, as we can now see, was Heavenly retribution for the corruption of the judges who were subject to the judgment of those whom they themselves were to judge.

 

The first pasuk of Ruth goes on to indicate that the famine caused a man to leave Eretz Yisrael and flee to Moab:

 

Ruth 1:1 Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons.

 

In Masekhet Bava Kama the Gemara succinctly comments:

 

Bava Kama 60b If there is famine in the city, scatter your legs [meaning, move out of the city], as it says, ‘There was a famine in the land, and so Avram went down to Egypt to reside there’.

 

Not only does the Gemara advise one to move out of a famine-stricken area, it cites proof from the story of Avraham’s relocation in Egypt to escape the famine, clearly giving its stamp of approval to Avraham’s decision.

 

The Ramban, in a famous passage, claims that Avraham committed a grave sin by leaving Canaan to escape the famine. For one thing, the Ramban writes, he should not have devised the scheme to pose as brother and sister, effectively subjecting his wife to defilement in order to protect himself. Secondly, he should have remained in Canaan, the land where HaShem ordered him to reside, and have faith in the divine promise of blessing and prosperity.

 

Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his “Yalkut Yehuda,” suggests reconciling the Gemara’s comment with the Ramban’s theory. When an individual suffers from economic hardship, then he should, indeed, relocate. The Nation of Israel as a whole, however, must trust in HaShem’s guarantee of protection, even if this requires anticipating a miracle. Avraham’s mistake, according to the Ramban, was that he acted as an individual, rather than recognizing his role as representative of all his progeny. As an individual, he acted properly, and thus the Gemara cites his residence in Egypt as a valid example for other people to follow. He erred, however, in that he should have followed the proper procedure for the Nation of Israel, which would warrant remaining in their homeland despite the hardships they might encounter there.

 

Hakham Moshe Alshich suggests the following reason for the famine in the days of Ruth:

 

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 16:20 Justice, justice shall you pursue that you may live, and inherit the land which HaShem thy God gives thee.

 

“Chazal[4] explain that the appointment of worthy judges preserves Israel and maintains them in their land. Hence, the verse adds: That you may live and inherit the land. This cannot refer to the conquest of the land since, by law, judges can only be appointed once the land has been conquered. Consequently, the promise must mean that if worthy judges are appointed, Israel will merit to remain in the land forever. The word inherit implies continuity, unlike a gift which is not handed down from one generation to another[5].”

 

“It follows from this that if unworthy judges are appointed, Israel’s right to inhabit the land will be jeopardized. Now the verse makes more sense. In the days when the people chose unworthy judges and justice in general was corrupt, it was inevitable that there would be suffering and the means of survival would be denied the people[6].”

 

Finally, there is an idea[7] that Elimelech was leaving Eretz Israel in order to end the famine. He understood that the famine was caused by the lack of proselytes and that he could end this famine by  returning a good dove from Moab:

 

Baba Kama 38b When R. Samuel b. Judah lost a daughter the Rabbis said to ‘Ulla: ‘Let us go in and console him.’ But he answered them: ‘What have I to do with the consolation of the Babylonians, which is [almost tantamount to] blasphemy? For they say “What could have been done,” which implies that were it possible to do anything they would have done it.’ He therefore went alone to the mourner and said to him: [Scripture says,] And the Lord spake unto me, Distress not the Moabites, neither contend with them in battle. Now [we may well ask], could it have entered the mind of Moses to wage war without [divine] sanction? [We must suppose] therefore that Moses of himself reasoned a fortiori as follows: If in the case of the Midianites who came only to assist the Moabites the Torah commanded ‘Vex the Midianites and smite them,’ in the case of the Moabites [themselves] should not the same injunction apply even more strongly? But the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: The idea you have in your mind is not the idea I have in My mind. Two good doves have I to bring forth from them; Ruth the Moabitess and Naamah the Ammonitess [virtuous proselytes]. Now cannot we base on this an a fortiori argument as follows: If for the sake of two virtuous descendants the Holy One, blessed be He, showed pity to two great nations so that they were not destroyed, may we not be assured that if your honour’s daughter had indeed been righteous and worthy to have goodly issue, she would have continued to live?

 

Thus we can see that once Ruth had been “found” and Elimelech, Kilion, and Machlon had died, only then did the famine end. Since HaShem ended the famine once these two events had occurred, then we see that the famine was only brought to accomplish these two events. Thus Elimelech sacrificed himself and his sons in order to end the famine.

 

Major Theme:

 

The major theme of Megillat Ruth is famine, as we can see from the first verse. (This was one of the ten famines.) This famine was the result of “everyman doing what was right in his own eyes”. The reaction of the people to this famine is what drove Elimelech, a judge, to move to the land of Moav. This man had an opportunistic mind rather than an aristocratic one. The common man would tend to want food to eat, while the aristocrat would want to know “why” this famine has come. The aristocrat cares about how to end the famine and the consequence hunger of his people, while the common man has no time for such things. He just needs to figure out how to get his next meal. Our focus shows us our class. If we do not care about the cause of the famine, then we are not ruling, we are existing. A ruler cares about the causes so that they can be avoided, while most of us care only about our own stomachs.

 

The Mishna, in Sanhedrin 29a, rules that when a beit din (court of Jewish law) accepts testimony regarding capital offenses, it is necessary to first “intimidate the witnesses” in order to impress upon them the severity of false testimony. “What,” asks the Gemara (ibid.) “do we tell the witnesses [in order to intimidate them]?” Rav Yehuda said: We tell them the following:

 

Mishlei (Proverbs) 25:14 Like Clouds and wind, but no rain, is a man who takes pride in a dishonest gift.

 

Procuring monetary gain by testifying falsely causes famine, so that even if clouds fill the skies and winds blow, rain will not fall. Thus Chazal tell us that false testimony causes famine.

 

The famine, in Sefer Ruth, immediately evokes several stories in Bereshit, each of which was a catalyst in the forcing interaction between the Patriarchal family and a “significant” outsider:

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 12:10 And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land.

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 26:1 And there was a famine in the land, beside the first famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went unto Abimelech king of the Philistines unto Gerar.

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 41:57 – 43:2 And all countries came into Egypt to Joseph for to buy corn; because that the famine was so sore in all lands. 1 Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, Jacob said unto his sons, Why do ye look one upon another? 2 And he said, Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt: get you down thither, and buy for us from thence; that we may live, and not die.

 

In almost diametrical opposition to the narratives of Sefer Shoftim, Sefer Ruth shows no concern whatsoever with national issues (save the famine and its reversal, which are necessary for the set-up of the plot); it is totally focused around the fortunes of one family.

 

Elimelech and his family left the land of Israel during the famine, his action reversed the communal trajectory, and it meant that he chose to be a ger toshav, a resident alien, outside his own place.

 

Placing Sefer Ruth in the context of the famine narratives of Bereshit which generate emigration from Israel, like Avraham, almost Yitzchak, and Yaaqov and his sons, suggests several contrasts. For example, Avraham and Yaaqov return home after suffering danger with enormous wealth, while Naomi returns home without children or wealth. She is more like the Shunamite (II Kings 8:1-6) who returns to find her land has been lost. The famines of Bereshit are not explicitly related to sin, while some Biblical famines are as in the days of Elijah (I Kings 17:1). Which pattern does this famine in Sefer Ruth follow? Midrash Ruth suggests that the sin is one of a leader abandoning his flock and his land in time of trouble.

 

Beit Lechem suggests King David’s (I Samuel 17:12) and hence Yeshua’s birthplace.

 

Mahlon and Kilion – disease and destruction – are not long for this world, just as Hevel was transitory like breath. (Judah’s two sons – Er = ariri, childless and Onan = mourning also died childless one after the other leaving Tamar in need of yibum)

 

“Why was Elimelech punished? Because he struck despair into the hearts of Israel. He was like a prominent and prosperous man who dwelt in a certain country and the people for that country depended on him and said that if famine should come, he could supply the whole country with food for ten years. So Elimelech was a notable of his town and a leader of the generation. But when the famine came, he said, ‘Now all Israel will come knocking at my door for help, each one with a basket.’ Therefore he fled from them. This is the meaning of the verse in Ruth 1:1 “An Ish/ prominent man of the House of Bread in Judah went to live in the fields of Moav” [which was condemned in Deuteronomy 23:4-7 for refusing to give bread and water to the refugee Jews leaving Egypt]. (Ruth Rabbah 1:4). The midrash picks up on the Biblical and rabbinic pattern of famine as punishment (from the days of Elijah) and on Naomi speaking of HaShem’s punishing her, without making the sin explicit.

 

Elimelech as a leader would have been obligated to support the poor in Judah, The result of his emigration was for his family to become widowed and later impoverished which would be a measure for measure punishment for abandoning the poor. Our Hakhamim can make a strong argument that this is the peshat since there is a Biblical Divine warning about mistreating widows and orphans, with an explicit threat that “your wives will be come widows and your sons orphans” (Exodus 22:21- 23). The same punishment for denial of chesed is the eradication of one’s name (Psalm 109:8-18). Thus the theological-moral interpretation of the famine and death of the notable family that left a city of famine for foreign land of plenty is completely in line with the Biblical worldview.

 

A further argument for the midrashic reading’s rootedness in Biblical peshat is that the people of Moav where Elimelech found refuge are known for not extending the basic human hospitality of bread and water to Israel when they were refugees coming up from Egypt

 

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 23:3-4 An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of HaShem; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of HaShem for ever: Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee.

 

Thus reading identifying Moab’s character with Elimelech’s we have a strong literary contrast of Judah versus Moab, insider versus outsider. Then Ruth’s behavior shows us the Moabite Ruth who is generous can redeem her ancestors, can dispel Judahite prejudices and can teach the people of Bethlehem that they have much to learn ethically from the Moabite outsider. She also tests whether Judah is as filled with chesed to strangers as they would like to think. It reverses the situation in Deuteronomy 23 where the Jews were in need of hospitality. The happy ending of our story in contrast with its punitive opening will be Ruth’s decision to comes to Judah out of chesed and solidarity as against Elimelech’s decision to abandons Judah out of denial of solidarity. All this goes beyond what the peshat can “prove” but it is a reasonable and dramatically persuasive scenario built out of Biblical building blocks.

 

Proselytes:

 

Another way of understanding the famine is that the famine was a famine of proselytes. Israel needs proselytes and without them the people will feel the lack. Elimelech left eretz Yisrael in order to seek the Moabite proselyte which would end the famine for the land.

 

* * *

This study was written by

Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David

(Greg Killian).

Comments may be submitted to:

 

Rabbi Dr. Greg Killian

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Olympia, WA 98501

 

Internet address:  gkilli@aol.com

Web page:  http://www.betemunah.org/

 

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[1] Sefer Yetzirah 1:7, Yeshayahu (Isaiah) 46:10.

[2] Proverbs 9:5

 

[4] Sifri, Shoftim 144

[5] Bava Bathra 129b

[6] In the introduction to Esther Rabbah, Number 11, “God said to them, ‘You treat your judges with contempt. I promise that I will bring upon you a calamity you will not withstand.’ That is the famine, as it is written, And there was famine…”. (Also cf. Midrash Tanchuma Semini 9, Zohar chadash, Ruth 77b.)

[7] I learned this from my teacher Hakham Dr. Yosef ben Haggai.