This essay is about some questions to which I don't have good answers. I have, for many years, been learning the Torah reading on Shabbat afternoon at Congregation Or Torah in Skokie. One of the people who participates is the wise and learned Dr. Sharon Goldberger, who in preparing for the bat mitzvah of her oldest daughter asked me the simple question, "Is there any mother-daughter relationship in TaNaKh-the Hebrew Bible? Is there any mother-daughter relationship in the Talmud or the Midrash?"
Because she is a learned woman she surely knew the answer to the question, but she was seeking to understand it. She then asked, "Why not?" Answers I did not have. Understanding I was not able to give her. There are surely mothers and daughters in TaNaKh, but there is no developed mother-daughter relationship in the TaNaKh, the Talmud, or the Midrash. I don't know why.
Then I asked myself the same question about fathers and sons. And while there are far more sets of fathers and sons in TaNaKh than there are mother and daughter sets, it became clear that no father-son relationship in all of TaNaKh is as developed as the relationship between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban and the relationship between Moshe and his father-in-law, Yitro-Jethro. Their relationship is all-important. The giving of the Torah is delayed for Yitro's wise counsel. There is another critical in-law relationship in TaNaKh. While, there is no mother-daughter relationship; there is a great and powerful relationship between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law, Naomi and Ruth. TaNaKh has more highly developed 'in-law' relationships than parent-child ones.
Thus we come to the Megillah, or Scroll of Ruth, read in the synagogue on Shavuot. It isn't just that the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, Naomi and Ruth, is the essence of the narrative of the Megillah. There is far more to it than that. Because of this compelling relationship between Naomi and Ruth we gain the king, David, four generations later. We gain the monarchy. And, out of the royal House of David will one day come the Messiah of the House of David to redeem the Jewish people. There is no real mother and daughter relationship in TaNaKh. But the mother-in-law-daughter-in-law relationship of Naomi and Ruth redeems the whole Jewish people. What is it with in-laws? Moses turns to Jethro after Sinai and says:
"We are setting out for the place of which the LORD has said, 'I will give it to you.' Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the LORD has promised to be generous to Israel." "I will not go," he replied to him, "but will return to my land and birthplace." (Numbers 10:29, 30)
This response is remarkable because this is Abrahamic language. When God says to Abram, "Go forth from your land and your birthplace", Abram goes forth from his "land and birthplace". When Moses invites Jethro to join the Jewish people, to plight his fate with their fate, to come to the Land of Israel, Jethro turns down the invitation and says to Moshe, "I shall not go, but to my land and my birthplace I shall go."
He will not follow the path of Abraham and leave land and birthplace. Naomi says to Ruth and to her sister Orpa, who want to return with Naomi to the land of Judah, "Turn back my daughters. Why should you go with me?" Orpa listens. Ruth does not.
Ruth replied, "Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. (Ruth 1:15-17)
The daughter-in-law, Ruth, retraces the path of Abraham and Sarah. She leaves her land and her birthplace. The father-in-law, Jethro, returns to land and birthplace.
There may be some understanding found here, in a clue given to us by the cunning of the Hebrew language. Daughter-in-law, son-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law, are clumsy constructions. In Hebrew, a son-in-law is "hatan," and a daughter-in-law is "kallah.". The words for son-in-law and daughter-in-law are the same in Hebrew as the words for "groom" and for "bride." The parent-in-law sees in the child's husband or wife, in the son-in-law and the daughter-in-law, someone who remains a hatan and a kallah. Fathers-in-law and mothers-in-law, when things are good, can claim only an unearned delight. They have not birthed and raised the one who has married their child. However they have birthed and raised their child, who has brought them a hatan, a groom, or who has brought them a kallah, a bride. What the parent has poured into the child determines who the child will choose as hatan or kallah.
The child's selection is either an affirmation or repudiation, of how the child was raised. This choice is either the greatest affirmation of the child's relationship to father and mother, or its most painful repudiation. This experience, when it is an affirmation, brings with it a joy and elation akin to the joy of bride and groom. The parents' rejoicing over the child's choice of a life mate is as joyful as the marriage itself. So the choice by the daughter of a hatan, or the choice by the son of a kallah, is wedding itself for the parents.
Naomi has lost everything. She and her husband Elimelech left the land of Judea in the midst of famine. They abandoned land and birthplace for the rich fields of Moab. They took with them two sons who married pagan Moabite women. Naomi's husband and sons die in Moab. She has lost everything. She sets out to return to her land and birthplace, to die there. She left the land of Judah with everything and she returns with nothing. At the last moment this Moabite pagan daughter-in-law of hers, widowed and destitute, walks with her to the land of Judah. Despite her betrayal of her land and birthplace, something in the way Naomi lived and raised her son made its way to Ruth. Because of it Ruth left her homeland and her family and chose to walk with Naomi. The son that Naomi lost is restored in the person of Ruth, who returns with Naomi to begin the dynasty that will culminate in David. Indeed, the mother-in-law, Naomi, is mother to the child of Ruth.
He will renew your life and sustain your old age; for he is born of your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons." Naomi took the child and held it to her bosom. She became its nursing mother, and the women neighbors gave him a name, saying, "A son is born to Naomi!" They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, father of David. (Rut 4:14-17 TNK)
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is Judaic Scholar at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.