On Shavuot, which begins Saturday evening, June 4, Jews around the world will read the Book of Ruth in synagogue. The biblical tale, situated in the pre-monarchical period in ancient Israel, tells the story of its eponymous heroine, a Moabite who marries into an Israelite family that moved to Moab in a time of political turmoil and famine. As Americans deal with their own political, financial, and geopolitical turmoil today, Ruth’s four brief chapters offer a profound example of how ancient models of humility, kindness, and hospitality can both reveal the greatness of our own nation and inspire a renewed will to overcome our current internecine conflicts.
In Moab, the Israelite Naomi finds herself quickly bereft of both her husband and two sons. One of Naomi’s daughters-in-law, Ruth, selflessly pledges to accompany her back to Israel. Her oath of loyalty is arguably one of history’s most famous: “whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”
The two widows lack food and community upon their arrival in Bethlehem. Out of desperation, Ruth volunteers to glean in a nearby field to feed herself and Naomi. There she encounters a wealthy landowner named Boaz.
As with most refugees, things are not easy for Ruth. She struggles in the new land and must rely on the kindness of strangers for food. She is also unfamiliar with the local customs and depends upon Naomi's guidance to figure out the charitable system of gleanings as well as the courting customs that enable her to eventually marry Boaz.
Like Ruth, refugees—and indeed all immigrants—need the help of native citizens in order to learn how to integrate into the new land and cope with their new circumstances. A welcoming smile, assistance navigating the grocery store, a warm meal, or even a bed for the night—such kindnesses, though perhaps swiftly forgotten by the bestower, can echo through the generations of the recipient.
In return, as the tale of Ruth and Naomi attests, immigrants can have an unexpected impact on their place of refuge, offering the gifts of their cultural perspectives. Naomi guides Ruth; and while the elderly Naomi remains at home, Ruth carries out her suggestions. Ruth's personal courage and entrepreneurial initiative inspire Boaz to be generous, spiritually and materially. As the legal theorist Bonnie Honig has observed, “The foreignness of Ruth is what enables her to supply the Israelites with a refurbishment they periodically need: she chooses them in a way that only a foreigner can (and the more foreign the better) and thereby remakes them as the Chosen People.”
In the end, it is not only Boaz and Naomi who benefit from Ruth’s drive, but the whole nation. Their union produces a son, Oved, whose name means “he who works.” He, in turn, is the progenitor of King David, the greatest of Israel’s kings, believed to be the forerunner of the Messiah by countless Christians and Jews worldwide. Cynthia Ozick has noted that Naomi’s other widowed daughter-in-law, Orpah, who chose to remain behind in Moab, “is history. Or, rather, she is history's great backdrop. She is the majority of humankind living out its usualness on home ground.” Ruth, in contrast, senses on foreign soil the roots of transformative redemption. She senses that the well-lived life is found not in isolation but in the messiness of uncertain journeys, in community, in faith, and in seeing others face to face. As the political scientist Mira Morgenstern writes, Oved and all that comes from him is a reflection that “Ruth realizes that in order for a life to be well-lived, one must search energetically for both meaningful experiences and actions that permit and demand growth.”
This dynamic is reflected in the American Jewish experience as well. Jews have come here from all over the world, often fleeing from persecution. America welcomed them in, and they have rewarded the nation with creativity and entrepreneurship, building not only businesses but entire industries, and excelling in the arts, academia, finance, film, science, and a host of other fields. American Jews have won 129 Nobel Prizes—about one third of America’s total.
These days, far too many Americans are critical of what this great land has accomplished. As a recent National Review-organized statement signed by dozens of thought leaders notes, “The national mood resembles those of the 1930s and 1970s, when radical critiques of America got considerable traction and our national self-confidence often seemed to hang by a thread.” In this fraught period, we can look to Ruth for answers. Her tale, wrote the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, is “a story about the power of human kindness to redeem life from tragedy, and its message is that out of suffering, if transformed by love, can come new life and hope.” Abraham Lincoln saw in America a land of hope, the Almighty's “almost chosen people” who “held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come.” If that promise is to be realized, it must manifest itself in a polity of shared hopes, of small kindnesses, of strenuous efforts, and of perspectives gained through dialogue with those who are different.
Ruth can remind us of what this great land has accomplished. As American Jews hear the story of Ruth and Naomi during the upcoming holiday, they can relate Ruth’s tremendous accomplishments as a penniless immigrant who became the ancestor of a great king to America’s history as an immigrant-welcoming nation. The Book of Ruth is a hopeful book, one that hearkens to the eventual redemption of the Messiah, who will be descended from her line. Perhaps all Americans can take this opportunity to look past our current period of division and, in recognizing all that our nation has accomplished, work on some much-needed redemption of our own.
Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is the senior advisor to the Provost at Yeshiva University and the editor of Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth (Maggid).
Dr. Tevi Troy is a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the author, most recently, of Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump (Regnery).
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