Orpah’s Kiss

May 22, 2021

Author(s): Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz,

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Parshat Nasso
May 22, 2021 — 11 Sivan 5781
Orpah’s Kiss
by Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz
Temple Emanuel, Newton, MA

            We have all been thinking a lot about Israel the last two weeks.  I want to talk to you this morning about an Israel story, and a human story, that you won’t find in the papers.  It is about a kiss.

            It is a kiss that many of us will give, and many of us will receive, in our lives.  It is a kiss that we about this past Tuesday, on Shavuot, in the Book of Ruth.

            You will remember the basic outline.  Naomi and her husband Elimelech, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, leave Judah at a time of famine and move to Moab.  But their time in Moab is unhappy.  Elimelech dies.  The two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth.  Both sons also die.  Bereaved of her husband and both sons, Naomi’s family now consists of her widowed daughters in law.

            Naomi turns to her daughters in law and says: I am going back home to Judah.  But you are young, and widowed.  You deserve to get remarried and to have children.  Since both of my sons have died, and I have no other sons, I totally get it if you stay back home in Moab, find a nice Moabite husband, and start your life all over again.  Naomi is not guilting her daughters in law.  She genuinely wants the best for them.  She genuinely wants their happiness.  And their happiness would be found in their living their own lives.

            What happens next is ironic.  Ruth does not heed the directive of her mother-in-law.

            But what Ruth says and does in response gets all the press: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”  That’s beautiful, and loyal, and praiseworthy.  Ruth follows Naomi to the land of Judah, and the rest of the book tells her story of meeting and eventually marrying Boaz, such that ten generations later, David is born.  Ruth’s story of faithfulness shines so brightly and is rewarded so richly–her faithfulness laying the foundation for the future king of Israel–that it usually takes all the energy in any consideration of the book.

            Orpah’s response, by contrast, does not get much press, even though she actually listens to her mother-in-law.  She does what her mother-in-law tells her to do.  She kisses her mother-in-law goodbye and stays behind in Moab where she rebuilds her life in anonymity.  The name Orpah is never mentioned again, not in the Book of Ruth, not in the Hebrew Bible.  Whoever talks about Orpah?

            But this morning, I want to talk about Orpah, because both Orpah and Ruth embody different paradigms of love, and while Ruth’s may be more admirable, if we are honest with ourselves, Orpah’s is both more accessible and more common.

            Ruth says to Naomi, in effect, I love you, and I am prepared to mold my life around you.  My life will be  about you.  If one were to channel Ruth, that would impose limitations on the choices one would make.  I am not going to leave home and move to some random city, to Austin, Texas or the Bay Area or some capital in Europe, for some intriguing job, or to just start over.  If one were to channel Ruth, then when the carousel of life turns, and elderly parents need more day-to-day care and presence, that would impose limitations—spending weeks and months lavishing the care that elderly parents sometimes require.

            We admire Ruth.  We admire Ruth so much that we say the Messiah comes from Ruth.  But many of us don’t do Ruth.  Many of us do Orpah.

            Orpah says to Naomi, in effect, I love you,  but my life cannot be about you.  I need to find a husband, I want to have children, I want to build a home, a family, a life.  Here is a kiss good-bye because I genuinely do love you. But I have to live my own life.

            When we say I have to live my own life, that is Orpah’s kiss.  When we move far from loved ones because we are living our own life, that is Orpah’s kiss.  Orpah’s kiss has a big benefit. We get to live our own life.  And Orpah’s kiss has a big cost.  We don’t see our loved ones, and they don’t see us, near as much as we and they would like.

            Orpah’s kiss, the kiss of moving on, the kiss of making my own way, the kiss of I have to forge my own destiny, is a kiss that many of us have both given and received.

            My father in love tells a story that happened more than 60 years ago like it happened yesterday.  My father in love was an only child.  He and my mother in love were in their mid-20s, a young married couple on the move.   They had both grown up in New York and had never been anywhere else.  Arnold went to City College of New York and then JTS.  Rae went to Hunter College.  All New York all the time.  When newly minted Rabbi Goodman was graduating from the Seminary, the question arose: where should he take his first pulpit?  Should they stay in New York?  His widowed mother lived there, and he was her only child.  There are Jews in New York.  There are shuls in New York.   He could have been a rabbi in New York.  But something deep in him, something deep in my mother in love, wanted to get out of New York, to see what it would be like to be a rabbi somewhere else.

            They spend their last night in New York in his mother’s apartment in Williamsburg.  It’s 4:00 a.m.  Young Arnold and Rae Goodman are just so excited to get out on the road, to drive from New York to Chicago, where he would have his first pulpit.  Their car is packed. The luggage is in the trunk.  They have their maps.  They are ready to go.  All they want to do is go, go, go, and write their next chapter.  But his mother has set the table for breakfast: white fish salad, lox, bagels, halavah, plain cream cheese, cream cheese with chives, hard boiled eggs, fresh coffee, fresh squeezed orange juice.  Have a little breakfast before you go.

            For years my father in love would talk about this moment: how excited he and his bride were to drive away; how sad his mother was to see them go.  She intuited the truth of that moment: after that last breakfast, after they gave and she received Orpah’s kiss, they would never live in New York again, and they never did.  She wanted them to be happy.  She wanted them to thrive. She knew they would thrive in Chicago.  Good for them.  And she missed them.

            Here is the good news: Rabbi and Rae had a fabulous life, marriage and rabbinic career in Chicago, in Minneapolis, in Atlanta.  He believes that his rabbinate was far more interesting,  diverse and impactful for having gotten out of New York.  Shira and her brothers loved growing up in Minneapolis.  And here is the complexity: they did not see their mother near as much as she or they would have liked.  That just is the reality of Orpah’s kiss.

            There are no villains in this drama, just humans trying as best they can to live their own life.

            Now that my father in love is 92 and a half, living in Jerusalem, and recovering from a fall which caused him to have surgery, the drama of Ruth and Orpah continues.  His Ruth is his son Ari and wife Tziporit, who live one block away, and are with him many hours every day.  The Messiah comes from that kind of love.  Shira and I are Orpah.  We love him more than the world, he is the only parent either of us has left,  but we just kissed him good-bye because our life is here, and we just flew back from Israel on Sunday.  Like Naomi, he wants us to live our own life in our own land, but that doesn’t make it any easier to say good-bye, for him, or for us.

            As a younger man, my father in love gave his mother Orpah’s kiss. As an older man, my father in love just received Orpah’s kiss from his daughter and me.

            Complexity that just is. Love comes in so many forms.  Shabbat shalom.