Loving the stranger: The timeless message of the Story of Ruth

The story is traditionally read on Shavuot because it is set during the harvest season and because King David, Ruth’s descendant, is said to have died during the holiday.

German painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s ‘Ruth in Boaz’s Field,’ 1828 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
German painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s ‘Ruth in Boaz’s Field,’ 1828
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The story of Ruth the Moabite is the unusual biblical tale of the trials faced by two women, touching on profound themes such as grief, familial loyalty, feminine dependence and independence, and the challenges of migration.
It is traditionally read on Shavuot because it is set during the harvest season and because King David, Ruth’s descendant, is said to have died during the holiday.
Ruth is a captivating character: loving, bold and charismatic. She makes unorthodox decisions throughout the story, such as migrating with her mother-in-law Naomi to the unknown land of Israel following the death of Naomi’s son, Ruth’s first husband.
Perhaps because of this, or because she chose to join the Jewish people, there is little focus on her foreign origins. It is rarely noted that the Messiah, who is meant to be of the house of David, is a descendant of Ruth and Boaz, a Moabite and a Jew. But there is much we can learn from the story of Ruth through her foreignness and her reception in Bethlehem.
These lessons should be more frequently applied to the context of modern-day Israel.
Ruth teaches us that human beings naturally find love and family connections wherever they are, irrespective of the ethnicity and faith of the people they fall in love with.
Today, for various historical reasons, much emphasis is put on the importance of Jews marrying within the faith, keeping matters in our ethno-religious group. But this is, to a degree, a deviation from our holiest text, in which several examples can be found of successful intermarriages, some so successful that they resulted in one of the biblical figures known to have been most beloved by God – King David. This is not to say that the story of Ruth encourages us to marry outside the Jewish faith, but I believe it teaches us that good things can sometimes be gained from doing so.
Ruth thus shows us how much foreigners can contribute to our own culture, for what gift could be greater than the promise that someday we will no longer have to go to war with our neighbors or want for anything, embodied in the figure of the Messiah and the vision of the end of days? Something in the essence of Ruth and her courageous actions, her heart and her strength of spirit, were a necessary component of this ever-elusive vision. Perhaps even her foreignness itself is essential, embodying the lesson that we can always gain and learn from having relationships with people who are different from us.
The story of Ruth also teaches us to judge foreigners in our land kindly, based on their own efforts and abilities. Immediately upon reaching Bethlehem, Ruth left Naomi at home, placing herself as a foreign young woman at risk, and endeavored to provide sustenance for them both. Her hard work was noticed by Boaz, who extended his protection to her upon learning what she had done for Naomi. Ruth was judged on her merits as a daughter-in-law and was seen as a positive addition to the family, regardless of her own religious background. I believe we have forgotten this important message today, too frequently judging people who arrive in our country based on their national or religious backgrounds rather than their qualities as human beings.
Finally, the story of Ruth teaches us to protect and provide for the most vulnerable in our society – the foreigners, the orphans and the widows. The mitzva of allowing the most miserable and wretched to collect the wheat that has fallen in the fields is represented in the Ruth story, where Boaz even allows her to gather wheat directly from the stalks, despite the cost to his own profits. He kindly invites her to dine with his workers, sharing his bread and water with her, eventually taking her into his family as his wife. This story tells us that, while we are obligated only to make available the bare minimum to the vulnerable members of society, we are encouraged to do more.
Sadly, many of these lessons seem to have been forgotten in Israeli society today. Our approach to the most vulnerable aliens, those seeking asylum in the face of persecution and oppression, is to try to encourage them to leave by denying them legal status in Israel, forcing them to deal every other month with the chaos of the Interior Ministry and the prospect of being denied an extension to their visa. We encourage them to leave by offering money to the ones who agree to relocate to a “safe” third country (often Uganda or Rwanda).
A recent addition to this system of financial “incentives” is the amendment to the so-called “Infiltration Law,” which determines that 20% of all asylum seekers’ monthly income will henceforth be seized and placed in a deposit, which will only be made available to them when they leave the country. Those who insist on staying in Israel despite the arctic welcome they receive are at perpetual risk of being detained in the Holot prison for a year at a time, denied the basic human right to freedom from arbitrary detention. The asylum seekers’ work ethic and status as law-abiding aliens (or otherwise) is of no interest to the authorities once the summons from the Interior Ministry is deployed; they are perceived by definition as threatening to us due to their otherness.
Not to mention asking ourselves what we could learn from them. This is of interest to almost no one. They are not perceived as people who have come from a culture, who might be able to broaden our own perspectives.
They are illegal work migrants who are simply here to take from our prosperous economy, from our own pockets. We forget the time that Boaz chose to give from his own pocket, or for that matter, the time that Naomi and her family migrated to Moab due to their financial hardship in Israel.
On this Shavuot, I will think of my friend from Eritrea who has spent the last eight months in Holot. My friend who, until he was jailed, worked six days a week as a minimum- wage cleaner at a hotel in order to send money to his family. Who sent three months’ worth of wages to his son to finance the obligatory bribes along the treacherous route from Eritrea, through North Africa and the Mediterranean, to the prospect of a life free of torture and oppression in Europe.
I will endeavor to think kindly of the foreigners in our land and ask myself what I can learn from them, and recall the important mitzva: “Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19).
The writer is currently pursuing a masters degree in Human Rights Law at the University of Edinburgh and is working on a research project for Amnesty International Scotland.