On Shavuot, we read the Biblical story of Ruth.
Ruth was a Moabite woman who married a Judean immigrant named Mahlon. Upon his death she became a childless widow who chose to accompany her mother-in-law, Naomi, to Judah. Naomi protested the decision, but Ruth persevered. She pledged her loyalty to Naomi, her people, and her god. So, Ruth, the Moabite, the foreigner, gleaned in the fields, and ended up in the field of Boaz, who was a distant relative. He allowed Ruth to glean in his field and arranged for her safety. Boaz made sure that Ruth, the foreigner, had a decent job at decent pay.
It is impossible to read this book now and not imagine what might have happened if Ruth came to the United States? Arizona? Would she be admitted at the border? Or would she be arrested because she was, after all, a Moabite, and a refugee coming for economic reasons. She couldn’t even have claimed family reunification; Naomi wasn’t a blood relation. Could she have found work as a farm worker if she didn’t have a green card? Would she be pulled over by a police officer because she looked Moabite and spoke with an accent? It was easier in Biblical times than now. Ruth's right to glean didn't depend upon her immigration status. It was the law.
Today in America, some are outcasts like Ruth, and some are wealth landowners, like Boaz. Everyone is entitled to decent work for decent pay. Everyone—even immigrants from other nations. In Biblical times, it didn’t depend upon Boaz’s generosity. It was the law.
The story reminds us that we need laws to protect the powerless. But the story reminds us of something more: law itself is not enough. We need to go beyond the letter of the law. We need compassion, we need kindness. It was the law that enabled her to glean, but it was Boaz’s willingness to go beyond the letter of the law that gave Ruth not only a job, but respect and a safe working environment.
There is the beauty of the simple narrative of the Book of Ruth, the power of a story about a strong relationship between women, a love story between an older man and younger woman. There are the personal and spiritual questions the book raises about choices we make at the crossroads of our lives. And there is the political challenge.
We read this book on Shavuot, the anniversary of the giving of law, to remind us that law by itself is not enough. And, perhaps the law can be wrong. We read the Book of Ruth to remind us that at each step on the journey of our lives, we should choose Chesed- kindness- - if we want to bring healing in the world. And we read the book now, at this season of counting, to teach us that each one of us that each one of us is accountable to each other and that kindness is what really counts.