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The House of Bread

Culinarily, when it comes to Shavuos, we all associate it with delectable dairy foods and treats.

Yet, when one reads the Book of Ruth, it’s a different food that stands out. The name of the town that Elimelech, Naomi and their two sons departed from, and to which Naomi, bereft of her biological family yet with her loyal daughter-in law-Ruth returns, is none other than “Beit Lechem,” literally, the “House of Bread.”

The Torah often plays with words and names, whose linguistic essence is linked to the substance of the narrative. This can be seen with some of the earliest Biblical personalities we meet.

For example, Avraham, the name of the founder of the Jewish people means Av-Ram, a great or lofty father. And Sarah, his partner, means sovereign or ruling.

About Noach, it says he found favor, chen, in the eyes of G-d — the letters of his name in reverse.

In the Book of Ruth we also see meaningful playfulness in the names of the story’s personalities. For example, the sons of Elimelech, Machlon and Kilyon, which each means destruction, were in fact, destroyed.

Elimelech himself, whose name includes the word king, was in fact the ruler at the time.

Naomi, whose name means pleasantness, is a woman of pleasantness whose life was pleasant. How do we know? Because upon Naomi’s return to Beit Lechem, when the townswomen refer to her as Naomi by asking, “Is it you, Naomi?” Naomi replies, “No, in fact I am no longer Naomi— a woman of pleasantness.”

She is now, after all she has endured in losing her husband and her two sons, an altered woman. “Call me ‘bitter,’”replies Naomi. She no longer feels that her name is reflective of her experience or her essence.

In Naomi’s response she illustrates a real awareness to the meaning of a name, of a word, an appellation.

Of all the personalities in the Book of Ruth, though, the adjectives describing the central personality, Ruth, are many. As Ruth’s journey and story unfolds, we may weave its tapestry by following the varied descriptions of this extraordinary woman who becomes the matriarch of the kingdom of the Jewish people. Ruth is kallah, daughter-in -law; biti, my daughter; na’arah, maiden; eshet chayil, woman of valor; and many more.

In this spirit of noticing names and words, the name of Beit Lechem, “House of Bread,” struck me.

Bread is symbolic of sharing. A famous idiom for sharing a meal is “breaking bread.” Bread is symbolic of sustenance and nurture. “The staff of life.”

Yet, Elimelech, the leader of the Jewish people, who were struggling at the time, enduring famine, abandoned his people and left his native “Beit Lechem” to protect and save his own family.

It seems as though Beit Lechem, House of Bread, is being used ironically here.

Here was the leader, whose own name includes the word in Hebrew for king, symbolizing leadership, yet he behaves in a manner that demonstrates precisely the opposite.

Returning to the idea of playing with words, the very letters of the Hebrew for “king,” which are the centerpiece of Elimelech’s name, when re-shuffled, create the word in Hebrew for bread.

Elimelech’s responsibility for lechem, for the bread or sustenance and nourishment of his people during their struggle with famine, was to care for them. The “bread” (lechem) within the “king” (melech) — within his kingdom — was arguably his ultimate role, which he failed.

To where does Elimelech escape? To Moab. What do we know about Moab? Biblical Moab is linked with Sodom. We know that Lot and his wife escaped Sodom and went the way of Moab. Now, Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for turning back and looking upon the destruction of Sodom.

When we think salt, we think of preservation. In a sense, preservation is the opposite of generosity or sharing. It’s a form of hoarding, holding onto what I have.

Moab is not only geographically symbolic of Sodom because it lies right alongside it, it was also borne out of the reality of the destruction of Sodom. Moab is not only topologically evocative of rough opaque pearly white salt beds, but also representive of holding onto, of the antithesis of generosity.

Yet Ruth, in her exquisite kindness, loyalty and emotional generosity toward her mother-in-law Naomi, is an anomaly. She goes against her society, represented by salt, against her natural habitat of not sharing.
Ruth becomes the antidote to Elimelech, the leader who emerged from Beit Lechem, the word and the place that ought to have represented caring, nourishment, generosity and sustenance, yet he behaves in the opposite way.

Ruth, by returning with Naomi to Beit Lechem, the House of Bread, infuses it once again with the true meaning of bread — sustenance and nourishment.

It’s as though the characters of Elimelech and Ruth are photo negatives of one another. They each represent the polar opposite of where they originally came from and create a new path for themselves that went against the place that raised them. Elimelech deviated from potential greatness. Ruth leapt forward into radical emotional generosity. Ruth came to be the one who restored kindness to the place that came to mean abandonment. Ruth’s regality were parallel to to Elimelech’s renunciation of regality.

This is the inner strength, deep heart and clear compass of a matriarch of the Jewish monarch.

So while Shavuot’s culinary traditions don’t involve the more essential ingredients of salt or bread, they represent the higher dimension of the Book of Ruth’s Shavuot story.

Copyright © 2023 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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