“A good name is better than fine perfume…”
A good name is easy to compare to perfume because perfume leaves its residue in the form of a smell. Many people wear a signature perfume that identifies them even before they walk into a room. Sometimes it’s a great smell, and sometimes it’s overbearing. Remember the old commercial; everyone in the office smelled the boss coming before he entered the room because of his terrible cologne, so they immediately started working to give the appearance of busy-ness. Your reputation - your name - is a lot like perfume. It announces your presence, introducing you, accompanying you and even leaving a little after-effect for impact. And just like perfume, you hope that the impact is positive and maybe even beautiful.
We are about to read the story of Ruth, a book filled with names that invite interpretation. Some believe Ruth’s name is related to the word for friendship, a grammatical stretch but true to her character. She was totally committed to her mother-in-law and her mother-in-law’s people, God, homeland and future. She had the opportunity to stay and rebuild her life at home but wanted instead the spiritual adventure of a lifetime. Her devotion ends in the true redemption of her life and the life of the people she adopts through the legacy of leadership that follows.
There is Naomi who does not want to be called “sweet” because her life was deeply embittered by loss. When the women of Bethlehem come to the city gate to greet her and ask, “Is this Naomi?” she quickly disabuses them of that notion. I have suffered so much loss that I cannot be called by the same name. I am no longer that person. As she says this, it is a chastisement to these women who dismiss her with their question. God has punished me enough, she reminds them. I do not need you to punish me further. Perhaps if you call me a different name, you will treat me differently. You will find compassion that you do not have now.
Orpah’s name in the midrash means “neck” because in leaving Naomi, she turned her neck from the life she had. There is ploni-almoni, a name associated with anonymity because this redeemer failed to redeem Ruth and was not considered worthy. And then there are Naomi’s sons: machlon and hilyon, loosely translated as “sickness and destruction.” Lovely. Glad I wasn’t at that baby-naming.
Scholars believe that these names were transposed on the text to reflect the feelings that readers should have upon reading this story. Maimonides helps fill in the gap by suggesting that Naomi’s sons were leaders of the generation who, during a time of famine and political unrest, turned away from those in need. They moved to Moab to seek their fortunes and evade the cries of petitioners. We appreciate their predicament. It is hard to have and be surrounded by have-nots. But that is where the work of leadership must take place. Those are the times when instead of moving away, we need leaders to lean in.
Ethics of the Fathers identifies four crowns, three of which appear in the book of Ruth: “Rabbi Shimon would say: ‘There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. But the crown of a good name transcends them all’” [4:13]. The book of Ruth contains the crown of kingship in presenting the ancestry of King David. It contains the crown of Torah because, in addition to its special narrative qualities, it demonstrates the Jewish values of charity and the importance of the levirate marriage in protecting women and the family name. And it contains the crown of a good name because Naomi returned to her state of sweetness by the book’s end and Ruth showed us the power of transformation through friendship.
If your name is your perfume, what fragrance do you bring into the lives of others and what beautiful smells are associated with your reputation?