As much as sabras fear being “friers,” immigrants fear being “greeners.” Ruth, whose story we read on Shavuot, may be our prototype for struggling with a new country’s rules and customs. Chapter 2 of the Scroll of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, seems to be describing this difficulty. It is certainly how Rav Yaaqov Medan reads it in his book, “Hope from the Depths.” His explanation uncovers a deeply relevant principal we would do well to consider.
According to Medan, when Boaz asks his field workers, “Whose girl is this?” he is in part checking to see how Ruth is perceived in Jewish society. Their answer, that she is “a Moabite girl who came from Moab with Naomi,” indicates that they do not see her as one of their own. In relating to Boaz that she wanted to collect omarim (sheaves of wheat) behind the male gleaners, they may be complaining that she should have been collecting only shibolot (individual stalks) further back among the poor women. (For a thorough illustration of the reaping process, to understand where Ruth might have erred, it is worth reading Eli Gurevich’s blog.) Indeed, when they debrief Ruth, both Boaz and Naomi indicate to her that she should stick with the ladies .
However, whether Ruth gets the rules or not, Boaz assures her that she will be well treated by the young men, and that she should stick with him and take grain from his field. When asked why, he explains that he has heard of her generosity and loyalty to Naomi. In other words, while she might have violated the customs and mores of his society, she has displayed morals and values that he admires. His attitude teaches those around him to treat people by their inner value, and not by social or tribal prejudices. Thus, he closes the circuit of generous giving begun by Ruth. The quality of mercy in this cycle of hessed ultimately leads to our nation’s redemption through David.
The scale of the African refugee problem dwarfs the awkwardness caused by Ruth’s faux pas. And the crimes that many Sudanese and Eritrean immigrants are accused of are several orders of magnitude worse than taking too large a portion of grain. There is no question that we have a mounting social, political and economic crisis that should not be understated.
But we must acknowledge that, in some way, Ruth is again in our midst, seeking food in our fields. Any discussion of solutions must come from the perspective of Boaz’s mercy. NGO outreach like Bina in the Hood are loyally following the model that Boaz left for us. Our government and society must follow this example as well.
Calls for immediate deportation and slurs comparing the immigrants to cancer should be beyond the pale. If there are criminals among them, there are also innocents yearning to live and be free. We will be judged by how we respond to their pleas.
We are, after all, a nation with a long memory. But we don’t have to go all the way back to Ruth to know living fellow Jews who remember being refugees turned away by others. We know the legacy of many nation’s turning blind eyes to our plight.
For God’s sake, we must be better than that.