The Book of Ruth and Lessons of Chesed

16 May 2021
By: Lianna Mendelson

The Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, teaches a Torah of Chesed, lovingkindness, which models our obligations to create a society that supports its marginalized members and draws them into the center of the community. The story opens with a famine in the land of Israel, which prompts an Israelite woman named Naomi to move to Moab with her husband and two sons. Naomi’s family found refuge in Moab, and her sons were married there. However, all three of the men died, leaving behind three widows. One of Naomi’s daughters-in-law stayed in Moab, but the other, Ruth, returned to Naomi’s hometown of Beit Lechem with her.

When Naomi and Ruth arrived in Beit Lechem, they were widowed and impoverished. However, there was a social safety net available to them. Leviticus 23:22 commands landowners not to reap the corners of their fields or to collect the gleanings that fall, but rather to leave them for the stranger and the poor. Due to the practice of this commandment, Ruth was able to gather enough grain to keep herself and Naomi well fed. Ruth and Naomi both at different times experienced what it was like to be an immigrant in a foreign land.

Ruth and Naomi were welcomed with open arms and a functional welfare system, and so were able to thrive after their arrival in the Land of Israel. Ruth married a new husband, Boaz, and mothered the line that brought us King David. Because she received both material aid and social-political status, she was able to be welcomed into society as a full citizen with full rights. How much would the thousands of asylum seekers in Israel thrive if they too were given rights and supportive infrastructure? Those who come in search of safety and security should not suffer in hunger and fear.

The story of Ruth is one of hand-to-mouth struggle, not dissimilar to the struggles of refugees and asylum seekers in Israel today. According to NIF grantee ASSAF – Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, which works to uplift asylum seekers, there are approximately 31,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. The coronavirus pandemic has devastated this community. Many of them had been employed in hospitality and the restaurant industry, which were obliterated by lockdowns. Without legal status, asylum seekers are not eligible for unemployment benefits or government food programs, and so those who lost jobs have been completely cut off from any source of income. In March 2021, the Health Ministry and Tel Aviv Municipality released a survey by Dr. Moran Blaychfeld Magnazi that revealed that 86% of asylum seekers in Tel Aviv suffer from food insecurity, while 54% are actively experiencing hunger. NGOs such as MESILA or ASSAF are stepping in to try to fill the gaps.

Shavuot is a reminder of our place in the chain of transmission. As we receive Torah, we continue to pass it onto the generations that follow. The Book of Ruth contains no miracles, no divine interventions. It teaches us that people can change lives through the chesed and kindness that we show to each other. On this Shavuot, and on all days, may we act with lovingkindness and work towards a better world.

photo of Lianna Mendelson: 2020-2021 Froman Fellow

Lianna Mendelson

Lianna Mendelson is a fifth-year cantorial student at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion and a 2020-2021 Froman Fellow. She is a member of the inaugural cohort of the Weitzman-JDC Fellowship in Global Jewish Leadership, is in her third year as Student Cantor at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, MD, and tutors B’nei Mitzvah students at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY.