This week’s Progressive Judaism column comes from Rabbi Alexandra Wright
At first impression, the story of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, appears to be a pastoral idyll and love story. Impoverished widow falls for wealthy landowner, they marry and she gives birth to a son who becomes the grandfather of King David.
At second glance, the story has deeper resonance. A famine forces a family to become refugees in a strange land. The sons marry, but the marriages are short-lived and their wives are left as widows.
When the famine is over, Naomi, also a widow, and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, the Moabitess, a foreigner among the people of Israel, return to the land. No marauding tribes attack them as they cross from Moab into Judah; no border agency staff detain them as they make their way into Bethlehem.
Instead, the town is astir because of them, discomfited and distraught on account of their poverty and bereavements. A relative on Naomi’s late husband’s side is not exactly running a food bank, but his employees, who are harvesting his land and who are being paid the living wage, are instructed not to pick up the leftover grain or glean the corners of the fields, but to leave them for the poor and the stranger.
The owner is fair and just to his employees. He tells Ruth to stay with the women and to follow them, to help herself to water when she is thirsty and he warns the male workers not to go near her.
Her surprise at his kindness is great. “Why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me – a foreigner?” she asks. Boaz has heard that, instead of abandoning her mother-in-law, she has been tender and kind to her, staying with her and bringing her food home each evening.
At Shavuot, we read a story in which the main characters exemplify some of the principal values of Judaism: welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry and giving shelter to the homeless, preventing trafficking, slavery and unwanted sexual advances and treating the elderly with tenderness and respect.
• Alexandra Wright is senior rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue