The first time I read aloud from the Book of Ruth was at the marriage of friends at the Catholic Church of St. Vincent Ferrer on New York’s Upper East Side. My friends had asked me to select a few verses from the Bible about loyalty, and what better quotation is there than Ruth’s declaration of fidelity to Naomi?
“Do not entreat me to forsake you, to turn back from you. For wherever you go, I will go. And wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people are my people, and your God is my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. So may the Lord do to me or even more, for only death will part you and me.” (Ruth 1: 16-17).
The theme of loyalty is one of many strands that are woven into the book of Ruth, which we read this week on Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks. Ruth is loyal to Naomi, Naomi is loyal to Ruth, the oft-overlooked Orpah to loyal to her family, to whom she returns in the land of Moab, and Boaz is loyal to Ruth, redeeming her near the end of the tale (along with a parcel of land) to “raise up the name of the dead.”
Since that first public reading from the Book of Ruth, I have chanted parts or all of it in Hebrew—first at Ansche Chesed in New York and this year at Kehillat Yedid Nefesh in Modiin in Israel. Each time I am struck anew by the beauty and serenity of this lovely narrative.
The Book of Ruth is a love story, a pastoral idyll with a happy ending. Traditionally read on Shavuot in part because it takes place at the time of the grain harvest when Shavuot falls, the story describes the return of Ruth and Naomi from the land of Moab to Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem in the land of Judah. Naomi has suffered the deaths of her husband and her two sons, the ill-named Machlon (meaning sickness) and Chilion (destruction) and when she is greeted by her townspeople, she says, “Call me not Naomi (pleasantness) call me Mara (bitterness.)”
Through a series of skillful maneuvers, the hero Boaz is convinced to marry the stranger Ruth, with whom she bears a son, Oved, who becomes the grandfather of King David. Although the denouement of the tale is a lineage of male “begats” leading to this royal descendent, the narrative itself is driven primarily by the actions of women. Naomi tells Ruth to go and glean in the fields of Boaz; when she finds favor in the eyes of Boaz, Naomi instructs Ruth to bathe and anoint herself and go down to the threshing floor, where she “uncovers the feet” of Boaz at midnight. When he wakes, trembling and twisting, crying, “who are you?” she responds, “I am Ruth your servant; may you spread your wing over your servant, for you are a redeeming kinsman.”
Female imagery abounds in the book of Ruth. When Boaz “acquires” Ruth as a wife, the elders of the city ask God to make her “like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built the house of Israel,” and declare that their house be like that of Peretz, “to whom Tamar gave birth by Judah.” (The presence of another powerful woman is hinted at: Jack Sasson, emeritus professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Vanderbilt University, has suggested that Boaz, when startled awake by Ruth, may at first believe her to be the demon Lilith.) When Ruth gives birth to a son, it is a chorus of neighbor women who name the baby Oved; they declare Ruth, “your daughter-in-law, whom you love,” as “dearer to [Naomi] than seven sons.” Naomi herself takes the baby, “setting him on her bosom,” and becomes a nurse to him.
The Book of Ruth also professes a paramount concern for the stranger, the poor, and the immigrant. Boaz follows the instructions in the book of Leviticus, chapter 19: 9-10:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I am the Lord your God.” He offers to share food with Ruth: “Come here and eat of the bread, and dip your morsel in the vinegar.”
Boaz marries Ruth even though she is a migrant from the Land of Moab. As noted by Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, in his fine annotated translation of the Book of Ruth, “for biblical Israel, Moab is an extreme negative case of a foreign people . . . The Torah actually bans any sort of intercourse, social, cultic or sexual, with the Moabites.” Alter argues that Ruth’s Moabite origins “have led many interpreters—convincingly, in my view—to see this story as a quiet polemic against the opposition of Ezra and Nehemiah to intermarriage with the surrounding peoples when the Judeans returned to their land in the fifth century BCE.”
At a time when refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean—5096 of them in 2016 alone, according to Doctors Without Borders—when two men are murdered in Portland, Oregon, for defending two teenage Muslim women from racist abuse; and when asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan—many of them survivors of violence and torture—are denied refugee status in Israel, I think it is more important than ever to heed the message of Ruth: Respect the stranger, share your harvest with the poor, honor the convert to Judaism. You never know when that stranger might be you.