“And it was in the times that the judges judged that there was a famine in the land and a man from Bait Lechem in Yehuda went to sojourn in the fields of Moav – he and his wife and his two sons.” (Megilat Ruth 1:1)
One of the issues we encounter in teaching students TaNaCh is that the interpretations of our Sages often seem far removed from the literal translation and intent to the passages. It is important that the teacher relate these interpretations to the passage by explaining the basis for the insight within the wording of the passage.
The above passage introduces the Megilah of Ruth. The pasuk tells us the land of Israel was stricken with a famine. In response, Elimelech left the land of Israel with his family and relocated to the land of Moav. Malbim quotes the midrash that explains the there were actually two famines that afflicted the land of Israel. One was a famine involving a scarcity of foods. In addition, the land was also afflicted with a scarcity of Torah. The midrash does not elaborate on the specific form or nature of this scarcity of Torah. Neither does the midrash explain its basis for this interpretation of the passage. However, Malbim suggests that the nature of this scarcity of Torah is indicated by another teaching of the Sages. Based on his analysis, he also indicates the basis in the passage for our Sages’ comments
Malbim begins by referring us to a comment of the Sages quoted by Rashi. According to our Sages, Elimelech was a wealthy person. As a result of the famine Elimelech was approached by many impoverished individuals needing his support. He fled the land of Israel in order to avoid his duty to support the poor.  At first glance, this seems to be another amazing comment that lacks any connection to the text. However, a careful analysis does provide significant support for these comments of our Sages.
Our passage describes Elimelech as “a man.” Only in the next passage does the Megilah reveal his identity. Like the Chumash, NaCh does not waste words. Ideas are expressed in as precise a manner as possible. So, we would have expected the Megilah to reveal Elimelech’s identity in the first passage instead of referring to him as “a man.” The Sages often comment explain the term eysh – a man – usually refers to a person of importance. The Megilah is telling us that Elimelech was a person of significance.
Furthermore, the Megilah is referring to Elimelech as an eysh in describing his abandonment of the land of Israel. The implication is that his decision to leave was in some manner associated with his status as a person of significance. What is the connection to which the pasuk alludes?
In order to answer this question, we must ask one further question. In what sense was Elimelech an eysh – a person of significance? How was he special? The only remarkable characteristic of Elimelech that is mentioned in the Megilah is his wealth. It seems that the Sages concluded that this must be the distinction to which the Megilah refers in describing Elimelech as an eysh.
Now, we can better understand the message communicated in the passage in relating Elimelech’s decision to leave the land of Israel to his status as an eysh. The apparent message of the passage is that Elimelech’s wealth was the basis for his decision to leave the land of Israel.
So, how did Elimelech’s status as a wealthy person influence his decision to leave the land of Israel? Our Sages conclude that his decision must have been motivated by a desire to preserve this wealth. They continue to explain that as a result of the famine Elimelech was accosted by the poor seeking relief. Elimelech was not willing to provide this support but neither was he comfortable turning the poor away. In order to evade his dilemma, he elected to leave the land of Israel and relocate to the land of Moav.
Based on the comments of the Sages quoted by Rashi, Malbim explains that nature of the famine for Torah. He explains that this famine was characterized by this attitude towards tzedakah – charity – expressed by Elimelech. In other words, the reluctance to provide support for the poor is described by the Sages as a famine for Torah.
In summary, although at first glance it would appear that the comments of the Sages are not reflected in the passage, a careful analysis of the passage does indicate that the Sages are responding to specific problems in the passage and resolving these problems based upon a thorough analysis of the text.
Let us now consider another issue. Malbim continues to explain that this is not the only instance in which the Sages use very harsh terms to describe a person who is remiss in performance of the mitzvah of supporting the poor. Malbim quotes two statements of the Sages. The Sages comment that anyone who hides his eyes from the poor is regarded as serving idolatry. In another instance, the Sages comment that anyone who does not involve oneself in acts of kindness is comparable to a person who has no G-d.
Malbim suggests that the Sages – like the TaNaCh – choose their words carefully. These two comments are not reiterations of the same idea. The subtle differences in the phrasing are significant. He quotes Rav Hai Gaon. Rav Hai explained that there is an important difference between hiding one’s eyes from the poor and not involving oneself in acts of kindness. When one hides one’s eyes, the person is attempting to not see something. In other words, there is a situation with which the person is confronted and the person turns away to avoid seeing and needing to respond to the situation. According to Rav Hai, this characterization describes the person that is confronted with a poor person – the poor person is knocking at his door – and he refuses to open the door or – like Elimelech – he flees from his responsibility. In contrast, in referring to a person who does not involve oneself in acts of kindness, the Sages are describing a different behavior. This person makes a decision to not get involved in acts of kindness. Perhaps, if a poor person came to the door, he would respond and provide assistance. But this person will not seek out the poor and those in need of help in order to provide for them.
Although Malbim does not comment on the issue, it is interesting that the Sages refer to the person who hides his eyes as an idolater and the person who does not involve oneself in acts of kindness as not having a G-d. Can we explain the difference between these two characterizations and why each is used in reference to its respective behavior?
When a person turns away and avoids a needy person, a calculation is being made. The person is confronted with someone needing help and is aware of the obligation to respond. At the same time, that person is reluctant to give of his wealth. He balances his love for his wealth against his Torah obligation to support the poor and decides to ignore his obligation in favor of his attachment to his possessions. In this calculation, the person is giving precedence to his love for his wealth over his commitment to Hashem and His Torah. In deciding that the love of wealth comes first, the person has given his wealth a position in his outlook that is reserved for Hashem. He has placed love of wealth above love of Hashem. In assigning this position – reserved for Hashem – to his wealth – he has replaced Hashem with his wealth. In this sense, he is characterized as an idolater.
A person who does not involve oneself in acts of kindness is not making this calculation. In fact, through removing himself from involvement in acts of kindness – chesed – the person has avoided the necessity of any such calculation. However, this person is also making a clear statement regarding his relationship to Hashem. Who is this person? Our Sages accuse him of abandoning G-d because he does not perform chesed. The implication is that the Sages are referring to a person who is otherwise conscientious in his observance. But in the area of chesed he is remiss. He is establishing boundaries for his relationship with Hashem. He is establishing a realm or framework in which he must serve Hashem and defining a corresponding realm or framework in which duty to Hashem is irrelevant. This person is not denying that he must serve Hashem. Instead, he is establishing perimeters to this service. He relegates his service to the synagogue or the bait hamidrash – the study hall. But he banishes Hashem from important elements of his personal life. The message of our Sages now emerges more clearly. We cannot establish artificial boundaries designed to exclude Hashem from portions of our life. Devotion to Hashem – by definition – requires recognition of Hashem’s mastery over all elements of a person’s life.
An analogy will help convey this idea. Assume a king decrees that his subjects should pay a five-dollar tax every year. The subjects respond that although you are king, we do respect your right to demand taxes. You do not have authority over our possessions. Does this king truly have power over his subjects or does he rule only by virtue of the indulgence of his subjects? Cleary, he rules by virtue of their indulgence. They have the power to decide the areas over which he does and does not have authority.
Now, let us apply this analogy to our discussion. If we accept that Hashem has complete authority over us – that He is truly our G-d – then He does not need our indulgence in order to dictate behavioral expectations. We must acknowledge His authority in every aspect of our lives. However, if we insist that Hashem does not have the authority to prescribe behaviors in some areas, then we are implying that Hashem cannot dictate to us but instead rules through our indulgence. If Hashem requires our indulgence, then we do not really regard Him as our G-d.