Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai said: Elimelech, Maḥlon and Chilion were the great men of their generation, and leaders of the generation. Why, then, were they punished? Because they left the Land for a foreign country, as is written: “And the entire city was astir concerning them, and the women said ‘Is this Naomi?’” [Ruth 1:19] What is meant by “Is this Naomi?” – Rabbi Yitzḥak said: “They said: Did you see what happened to Naomi who left the Land for a foreign country?”
[Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 91a]
The Gemara teaches that Elimelech and his sons Macḥlon and Chilion were the great men and leaders of their generation, yet they were punished by death for having left Eretz Yisrael at a time of famine.
This Gemara arouses questions:
One, Elimelech and his sons are not the first to have left Israel because of a famine. Abraham and Jacob left Israel for Egypt during famines. Why were Elimelech and his sons singled out for punishment?
Two, why were Macḥlon and Chilion killed? It would seem that only Elimelech, the head of the family, and as such, the initiator of leaving the Land, is culpable. Indeed, Megilat Ruth makes it clear that ten years passed between the death of Elimelech and his sons’ deaths. Why does the Gemara connect all three deaths and assert that all three died because they left the Land?
Three, the simple meaning of the verses seems to be that reason for Maḥlon and Chilion’s deaths was the fact that they married foreign women, as Rabbi Meir states explicitly. [Midrash Ruth Rabba 2:9] Does Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai’s comment necessarily contradict that of Rabbi Meir?
Elimelech Refused to Support Others
Midrash Ruth Rabba [2:4] reveals a fascinating aspect of the story of Elimelech, noting that the famine in his days was not the first mentioned in Tenach (the Bible). Among others, the Midrash mentions the famines in the days of each of the Forefathers. After mentioning the previous famines, the Midrash notes that Elimelech is unique in being the only one punished for leaving the Land during famine. The Midrash ‘s question “Why was Elimelech punished?” takes on additional meaning: “Why was Elimelech the only one to be punished?” The Midrash answers its question with a description of Elimelech’s economic and political status at the onset of the famine: Elimelech was the wealthiest person in the Land, with the economic means to feed the entire nation for a decade, and he was seen as the benefactor who would indeed provide assistance n time of need. Rabbi Meir interprets Elimelech’s name homiletically: “Elai tavo malchut” (monarchy is due me). Elimelech saw himself as a king, whose job it is to support his subjects in their time of need. However, when the crisis arrived, Elimelech abandoned his people and ran away. When the famine began, Elimelech’s maidservant went to the retail market and purchased a small amount of food for his family. In this act, the maidservant demonstrated that Elimelech’s wallet was not op-en on behalf of his people. The people’s disappointment was great, and “the hearts of Israel fell” because of this. The Midrash provides the reason for Elimelech’s behavior: “He saw that all Israel surrounded his gates (asking for alms), so he ran away from them.”
This pointed criticism reveals the hidden considerations in Elimelech’s decision to leave the Land, and thereby explains the severity of his deeds and why specifically he was punished for leaving the Land during a famine. Not only did Elimelech leave the Land (a sin which in and of itself is severe), but he abandoned his people, who no doubt relied on him to save them from starvation, while he had the means to support them for ten years. The strong criticism of Elimelech is due to his abandoning the nation at a time they were most dependent upon him.
This criticism is also found in Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korḥah’s comment in the Gemara [ibid. 91b]: Elimelech and his sons were punished because they should have begged for mercy for their generation, but they did not.
Macḥlon and Chilion Continued the Sin of their Father
The above comments explain why Elimelech was punished for leaving the Land but leave open the question of Macḥlon and Chilion’s part in their father’s sin.
As noted above, Rabbi Meir’s opinion is that Macḥlon and Chilion were killed for having married foreign women:
“And they married Moabite women…” [Ruth 1:4] “And both Maḥlon and Chilion also died.” [ibid. v.5] Rabbi Meir taught: Maḥlon and Chilion did not convert them, or immerse them in a mikva. [Midrash Ruth Rabba 2:9]
Midrash P’sikta comments:
”וישאו להם נשים מואביות. מי גרם להם לישא נשים מואביות? אלא על שעשו מעשה עמון ומואב, שנאמר (דברים כג, ה) ”על דבר אשר לא קדמו אתכם בלחם ובמים”, וגם אלו ברחו מארץ ישראל שלא להקביל פני האורחים.”
“And they married Moabite women…” What caused them to marry Moabite women? The fact that they acted in the manner of Amon and Moab, as Scripture states: “Because they (Amon and Moab) did not greet you with bread and water on the way, when you left Egypt.” [Deuteronomy 23:5] Similarly, Macḥlon and Chilion ran away from Eretz Yisrael rather than greeting guests. [P’sikta Zutrata, Ruth 1:4]
In a brilliant stroke, P’sikta connects Macḥlon and Chilion’s sin of taking foreign women and their family’s behavior in leaving the Land. The family which estranged itself from its nation and refused to feed others in their time of need is most suitable for marrying daughters of the nation which refused to supply food and water to a related nation which wandered in the wilderness. Thus, it is appropriate for Elimelech’s family to connect to the nation of Moab. This completed the process of alienation which began with Elimelech turning his back to his nation. Elimelech’s son assimilated into Moab, the nation which, due to its immoral acts towards Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel), is forbidden for Israelites to connect with.
Thus, the process Elimelech began continued and expanded. P’sikta [ibid.] states that had Elimelech been alive, he would not have allowed his sons to marry Moabite women. Elimelech, who left his nation, did not anticipate the far-reaching effects of his actions. What began as a temporary departure from the Land during the famine ended with his family dying out and effectively disappearing. Thus, P’sikta uses the phrase “Had Elimelech been in existence;” not only is Elimelech not alive, but he is no longer in existence.
However, this process was completed only after ten years in Moab [Ruth 1:4], Macḥlon and Chilion did not die immediately after marrying Moabite women, only a decade later. Why is this? In a chilling way, it is connected to the reason the family left the Land: the family which could have fed the entire population through a decade of famine ended its life a decade later in Moab. God waited for the family to repent, but they did not.
We began with the Gemara ’s comment that Elimelech and his sons died because they had left the Land, noting that they were not the first to do so in times of famine. We cited additional Midrashim which offer alternate reasons for the punishment of Elimelech, Maḥlon and Chilion: their failure to help their fellow Israelites or their marriages to Moabite women.
After analyzing the Midrashim, we suggested that the common theme is Elimelech and his sons having abandoned the nation in its time of difficulty. This was manifest on different levels: geographically (leaving the Land); economically (refusing to support the people); and finally, on the personal – family level (marrying foreign women). Elimelech’s abandonment of his nation is especially egregious since the people anticipated his assistance, since he was a leader and one of the great men of the generation. Elimelech not only abandoned his nation, but in so doing he shattered its spirit. Seeing their leader abandoning them and their Land brought despair and shattered the spirit of the entire nation. His actions caused “the hearts of all Israel to fall.”
It seems that anyone who was in Israel during a war or during an extensive military campaign understands the feelings of the Israelites in reaction to Elimelech’s actions. Imagine a prime minister and his family leaving Israel if war broke out on one of our borders! The implications and consequences of such behavior would indeed be dire.
The lesson of the story of Elimelech and his family, which began with alienation from the nation at a time of distress, leading to assimilation and the family’s death is perhaps painful and penetrating: the need to connect one’s personal welfare with that of the nation which dwells in Eretz Yisrael.