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Helpmate
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Helpmate

The story of Ruth is inspirational. The story of Naomi could have been also.

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On Shavuot we read about the kindness, dedication and loyalty of Ruth. We don’t say as much about her mother-in-law Naomi (mothers-in-law always get a bad rap!) who inspired those qualities in her daughter-in-law. Naomi must have been a very special person. Yet she seems to have made one serious mistake.

All her troubles began when a famine struck the land of Israel. Her husband, Elimelech, was very wealthy. But he couldn’t/didn’t want to deal with all the needs of the community, with all the hungry Jews at his door clamoring for help. Whether he was just selfish or he couldn’t bear the pain, the story doesn’t tell us. But either way, he turned his back on his community, packed up his bags and moved with his wife and sons to Moav (the country that embodied selfishness in their unwillingness to give the Jews water when they passed through as they left the slavery of Egypt).

What does this have to do with Naomi? She was just being a good wife and listening to her husband. Or was she? When the Almighty created Adam, He said “I will make him an ezer k’negdo, a helpmate opposite him.” Everyone comments on this unusual phrase. The classic explanation is that when our husbands are focused and doing what’s right, we are right at their sides helping bring our shared vision into reality. But if they are making a mistake, if they are losing their balance, if their focus is off, then our job is to be “opposite him” and to point out the mistake.

Naomi should have discouraged Elimelech from leaving. She should have refused to go. She should have made a compelling argument for staying, for standing with the Jewish people for good and for bad. Perhaps she did. If so, it was ineffective. And that is also a mistake.

Sometimes (and it’s hopefully not too often) even when we recognize that it’s our job to help our husband introspect, we go about in the wrong way. We nag, we pester and we nag again. Once in a while our husbands are so beaten down that they respond to our nagging and so we delude ourselves into thinking it is an effective tool.

The wise woman, on the other hand, strategizes. How can I gently nudge him to a different viewpoint? How can I subtly help him see another perspective? We have the ability to do this. It is one of our gifts. Sometimes we neglect it because it’s more effort. When the judge Deborah wanted her husband to get involved in learning, she didn’t nag him until he gave in just to make her stop. Instead she made wicks for him to sell in the study hall and eventually the atmosphere of study seduced him.

The demand for wicks today is marginal but the strategy still works. We need to be clever. We need to be resourceful. “I’m throwing a party tonight for our neighbors so we can all get to know each other better.” (Once they are real people to him and not nameless needy beings, his attitude may change). We need to use praise. “I’m so proud to be married to such a giving man.” We need to figure out what works (“I love you dear and I don’t need furs and fancy cars to prove it”).

The story of Ruth is inspirational. The story of Naomi could have been also.

Published: May 31, 2014


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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Teresa, June 7, 2014 4:52 PM

Although I understand what you are trying to say, but I think you are leaving out a very important part, choice. If my husband is choosing righteously and I choose to stand with him that is good, but that does not mean nothing "bad" will befall us. Yet you are saying if my husband is making a choice I do not see as righteous it is my job to convience him of what is right through manipulation or any means necessary. Now if he is doing something that is wrong, then yes I do think it's my job as a helpmate to talk to him, explain, show, and pray for him but I cannot make him choose what is right, if he does not chose my way then that certainly does not mean I am ineffectual or wrong, it means he made a wrong choice. He will be held accountable for that choice, but I personally do not want to control another to the point of making all choices for them or the responsibility of that.
In other words we do not know what Naomi said and did maybe she made very good arguments and he just didn't listen....he made other choices. Now she could have as you stated refused to go and gotten a get, but then we wouldn't have Ruth.....maybe Naomi had reasons for not doing so, maybe he had a better argument than she. maybe it was HIS will that they go. So If it is the Fathers will to do something, should she really have manipulated her husband into doing something different that she deemed right? There are to many unknowns in this story to say that she was wrong and place blame on her.

(4) Eliyahu Poll, June 6, 2014 4:10 AM

In fact, the person behind everything that Rus accomplished was Naomi. Rus became a giyores only because she was inspired by Naomi's greatness. Rus went to Boaz exactly as instructed because she understood that Naomi had to be correct.
Naomi did not make any mistakes of which we are aware. She followed her husband to Moav, because the role of a wife is to be loyal to her husband, to be dedicated to her family and to be committed to marriage. That is a true ezer.
According to Halacha, Naomi could indeed have refused to leave Eretz Yisrael. She would have then accepted a get and received her kesuva in full. Had she done so, she would have been like many other self righteous women, who put their foot down over a perceived principle and proceed to vanish from history.
We know of Naomi precisely because she remained loyal. As soon as shalom bayis no longer stopped her, she immediately returned to Eretz Yisrael. Her decision to return, although alone and empty handed, was the inspiration for Rus to join her. Naomi never lost sight of what was right, but understood that a Jew must always balance priorities.
One should encourage ("ezer") and set an example ("kenegdo"). Success in effectuating change is not in one's hands. Ultimately, klapay maala, we are responsible for our efforts, not whether we meet a particular goal.
Naomi continues to be a source of inspiration for centuries. But we need to step away from our preconceptions and become attuned to the message.

(3) Anonymous, June 3, 2014 11:38 PM

Oy

I hope this critique is grounded in a solid primary source. it's a harsh judgment of a women who suffered the ultimate pain. Just losing her husband and kids and staying w G-d places her above and beyond. i've always learned that she was righteous. women in that culture did not have the same power we enjoy. perhaps she begged to stay. but she inspired brought the ancestress of Mashiach. No small potatoes...

(2) Anonymous, June 3, 2014 5:24 PM

shocking commentary

I'm shocked to read how you are blaming the victim. Where is your proof to back up this article? Who said Naomi didn't try every (diplomatic) way she knew to stop her husband? Society was different in those days and it may not have been an option for her to refuse to go with her husband. As a righteous woman who merited to raise her grandson, the ancestor of Moshiach, she referred to herself as "Marah" b/c she felt her life was so bitter. That means she felt forced into things she didn't want. Besides, this was all part of Hashem's plan that Ruth would join the Jewish people and help bring Moshiach. Ruth was drawn to her b/c she recognized how special Naomi was, not b/c Naomi wasn't a good enough wife! I'd love to see proofs for the points you are making. I am usually a big fan of your columns but this one doesn't ring true at all.

(1) rr, June 2, 2014 2:43 PM

Very well said.. Thanks

Great job

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