Stories of mothers and daughters abound in literature and legends but there is only one story of a mother and daughter in the Bible - the tale of Ruth and Naomi. Though Ruth is not Naomi's daughter by birth, she is by spirit; the older woman addresses her as "my daughter" (biti) again and again.
Precisely because Ruth is not flesh-of-her-flesh, bone-of-her-bone, this story becomes the paragon tale of loving kindness (hessed). Naomi tries to discourage her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, from following her to Bethlehem, three times adjuring them to turn back to the Land of Moab. Orpah then takes her advice, returning to her homeland. But Ruth clings to her, swearing on oath that she will never leave her in one of the most beautiful love poems of the Bible: "Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die - there will I be buried..." (Ruth 4:16-17). Her love for her mother-in-law surpasses filial devotion (as there is no biological bond); rather, Ruth offers a love based on the commitment to abide by Naomi's side until death parts them.
YET NAOMI does not initially understand the blessing that Ruth offers her, for she answers these words of love with her own poem of rankled bitterness. Upon returning to Bethlehem, widowed, bereft and penniless, all her land sold, the women all greet her, in a kind of Greek chorus: "Is this Naomi?" She answers them with a Job-like lament: "Call me no longer Naomi, call me Marah, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?" (1:20-21).
Naomi disowns her name, meaning sweetness or pleasure, and calls herself, instead, Marah. In dire pessimism, she is prepared to contract into a bitter lot. Indeed, she would be the female counterpart to Job if Ruth was not by her side. Little does she realize that this young woman would prove to be better than seven sons to her (4:15), enabling the redemption of her lands and giving birth to a grandchild, whom Naomi herself would nurse and mother (vv. 16-17). Ruth will sweeten those bitter waters.
THE SEASON bodes hope, for they return to the Land of Judah around the time of the barley harvest. Naomi only becomes fully aware of the true gift Ruth promises her when she returns from the night spent with Boaz at the threshing floor. Before leaving at dawn, Boaz asks Ruth to hold out her shawl, "and he measured out six [measures] of barley" (3:15). The commentators in the Talmud query: Was it six grains or six bushels of barley? Would it have been the custom of Boaz to give only six grains? Yet six bushels would have been too much for one woman to carry. Instead, in these six grains he intimated to her that six descendants were to come from her, each blessed with six blessings: David, the messiah, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah..." (B. Sanhedrin 93b).
From the threshing floor, she carries away not only the hope of redemption for her mother-in-law, but the portent of salvation for the nation, the cosmos, even history. What an auspicious gift! Yet when Ruth returns with the six grains of barley, Naomi asks an odd question, "Who are you, my daughter (Mi at biti)?" (3:16). Just as Naomi was not recognized by the women of the town upon her return to Bethlehem, Ruth now seems unrecognizable. Yet Naomi's surprise contrasts sharply with their alarm upon her return; perhaps she does not recognize the hope radiant in Ruth's face.
ALTERNATIVELY, ONE can read it with another intonation: "Have you really become my daughter?" (Mi? At biti?). Ruth answers her, supposedly quoting Boaz: "He gave me these six measures of barley, saying to me, 'Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty'" (3:17). In these words, she echoes back and transforms the original lament, "I went away full, and God has brought me back empty" (1:21). Sometimes it takes so little to shift from despair to hope - six grains of barley wrapped in a shawl.
We look at our daughters and often do not see the blessing they bring us. For Naomi, it took time for her to recognize this in her daughter-in-law. And then there were moments of surprise, even pleasure. Ruth enabled Naomi, who called herself Marah (bitter), to reclaim her namesake, na'im (sweetness, pleasure). She healed those bitter waters.
I would like to bless you this Shavuot with the lovingkindness of Ruth and the ability to see the sweetness in your daughters, to see what a mere six grains of barley can carry.
The writer lectures in Bible and midrash at Matan, the Sadie Rennert Institute for Women's Torah Studies, in Jerusalem, as well as internationally.