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Redeeming the World

King David in paradise (Rothschild Miscellany, Psalms)

Thursday night this coming week Jews celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, and we will read the Book of Ruth. The book of Ruth contains the solution for every major problem in the world. Read on!

Among biblical books, Ruth is an exception. It’s about normal people. God’s presence is felt but there are neither epiphanies nor great people: no Moses, Miriam, Abraham, Deborah. No epic characters.

The midrash on Ruth comments that “… the Book of Ruth was written for one purpose only: ‘to teach how great is the reward for those who do deeds of hesed.’” (unconditional loving kindness. Uncompensated loving.)

Ruth demonstrates hesed to her mother-in-law, Naomi; and, as a result, Boaz shows hesed to Ruth, whom he marries. The result of that marriage is Obed, who fathers Jesse, who sires David, who originates the birth line of the messiah. Thus, we conclude the biblical message is, “hesed is the quality that saves the world.”

Ruth 2:10 contains a Hebrew pun that epitomizes this understanding. Unfortunately, the pun does not appear in the English translation.

Ruth 2:10 tells us, with Ruth speaking to Boaz who has just shown Ruth extraordinary kindness after he recognizes what Ruth, herself, has done for his cousin, Naomi, “Why have I found grace in your sight, for you to take notice of me, when I am only an alien?”

Hebrew words contain 3 letter roots. In the above sentence, the words “for you to take notice of me,” (one word in Hebrew, l’hakireini) and alien contain the same root, although they have opposite meanings. The first word means recognition of a human being. The second word, “alien,” means a person who is not recognized. Aliens are indistinguishable. They are unrecognized by the culture. They are the classic “other,” unknown and unknowable.

Ruth was born in Moab, not only a foreign land (in today’s Jordan), but an enemy of the Jewish people. Deuteronomy 23:4 goes so far as to command, “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord …” If there is such a thing as the ultimate alien, that’s Ruth. She is not only unknown, but denied recognition. Nonetheless, Boaz grants this alien recognition because of her hesed.

The two terms, to recognize and alien, stemming from the same root, contain a single difference: the origin of both is sight. When Boaz chooses to see Ruth for what she has done (verse 11), her alien status is reversed to being seen and recognized for herself rather than the other.

Unrequited loving kindness, simply based on the humanity of the other, therefore, is the single difference between the alien and the homeborn. When Boaz truly sees Ruth she is no longer the unrecognized alien and is not only included among the “chosen people” but becomes the progenitor of the Redeemer of the world. Humane recognition is the only difference between enemy and Savior.

When the world grants hesed, loving kindness and grace, to the unrecognized humans who live among us, whom we deem unacceptable because of their origins and whose humanity we refuse to see, only then will we save the world.

Shabbat shalom.


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