Ruth replied, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. This and more may YHVH do to me if anything but death parts me from you” (Book of Ruth 1:16-17)
These are the timeless and moving words of Ruth, the Moabite, as she declares her devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi. Naomi, her husband and her two sons, all Israelites, had left the land of Israel and settled in neighboring Moab. There, her sons married local girls Ruth and Orpah. Naomi’s sons and husband died. Orpah returns home to her own family, but Ruth insists on remaining with Naomi. Together they return as widows to Naomi’s home in Bethlehem of the tribe of Judah. The Book of Ruth is a beautiful tale of kindness and redemption, set in the time of the Judges, in the earliest days of Israel. We read the Book of Ruth on the Festival of Shavuot, which we welcome this coming Wednesday evening, May 30. (Details here – we will read and study the Book of Ruth together that evening.)
Shavuot marks the time of the first harvest in Israel, and is known as Chag Habikkurim– the Festival of First Fruits. The story of Ruth takes place during this season, when the grain is being harvested, and so coincides with Shavuot. But the connections run deeper, for the Torah repeatedly commands us to leave the corners of our fields and the loose grain for the poor and the stranger. Ruth, a penniless stranger, supports herself and her mother-in-law by following the workers and gleaning the remnant of their harvest. And because of the generosity of Boaz, the landowner, she is able to collect enough to sustain herself. Boaz takes an interest and then marries Ruth, and out of their union will eventually descend King David himself.
Jewish tradition views Ruth as the archetypal convert to Judaism. Under no coercion, she pledges her loyalty and devotion to the Jewish People and to God. And she is welcomed and treated with kindness, as one of our own. These are the core principles of the Jewish attitude toward those who would choose to become Jews: It must be their own choice, never forced or coerced; and, anyone who chooses to become a Jew is to be welcomed wholeheartedly into the community, with kindness and generosity of spirit.
Some of the most moving and powerful experiences I have had as a rabbi have been the opportunities that I have been graced with to shepherd seekers through the process of converting to Judaism. Since I had grown up Jewish, and had always felt inextricably attached to my Jewish identity, I had never really considered why someone would choose to adopt a new identity, faith and tribe. But when, as a rabbi, I began to encounter deeply sincere, searching folk who found themselves drawn to Judaism, I realized that I was privileged to accompany them on their soul’s journey toward fulfillment. The reasons that each person articulated for taking this path were varied, but they all shared an ultimately unfathomable motivation that transcended their ego and often even their will. I was witness to a mystery.
Even more, these beautiful souls allowed me to look at Judaism with fresh eyes. Growing up Jewish, I naturally absorbed all the mishegas – craziness – and neuroses of Jewish life: the pressure to succeed, the overbearing relatives, the black cloud of the Holocaust. I could easily feel jaded and wearied of the battle to maintain Jewish identity and community. Why in heaven’s name would anyone want to go to all that trouble to become a Jew? And yet here I was, encountering others who were drawn to the profound and life giving wellsprings of this ancient path. Through their eyes I was able to see the meaning, purpose and beauty of Jewish life with newfound clarity. Each encounter was a gift to me, and filled me with renewed appreciation for my People’s crazy determination not to give up, and to keep alive our Torah’s timeless truths.
After years of participation and study, when a candidate for conversion is ready, we enact a ritual. The candidate immerses in living waters, the mikveh, witnessed by a bet din, a tribunal of three. He or she then emerges from the waters with a new identity and a new Hebrew name. Henceforth, this person is now a Jew. Again, I tremble a bit as I recall the power of these moments, when a person has fulfilled their soul’s longing to join the Jewish People.
Our tradition therefore teaches that the convert is to be welcomed as one of our own, because, in fact, they now indeed are one of our own. This is the message in the Book of Ruth. The convert is no less a Jew than one born a Jew. In choosing Judaism, the convert, in fact, has often engaged in a much more rigorous process of discernment and commitment than the born Jew, who might be inclined to take his or her Jewish identity for granted. We born Jews have much to learn from those who have joined us along the way. As Boaz demonstrates, The Book of Ruth teaches that the convert’s sincerity must be matched by the sincere welcome that they then receive from their adopted community.
The Book of Ruth contains an even more humbling teaching: never assume that you know what the future holds. Just because someone is a newcomer to your community, do not discount them or write them off. In Pirkei Avot – the Teachings of the Sages – Rabbi Shimon Ben Azzai teaches,
Do not disdain any person;
Do not underrate the importance of anything—
For there is no person who does not have his or her hour,
And there is no thing without its place in the sun. (4:3)
Had Boaz dismissed Ruth rather than treated her with loving kindness, King David would never have been born, and the history of our people would never have unfolded. We simply cannot know the gifts each person brings to our lives. Let us learn from Boaz, and treat everyone who joins our community as one of our own. The Jewish community will always be the richer for it.
Rabbi Jonathan Kligler