Although the only cheese I ate this year for Shavuot was La vache qui rit (not a bad alternative by the way), I did take some time to read the Book of Ruth and make some observations.
There are a lot of similarities between the story of Ruth and the situation here in Niger. Especially right now. First of all there was a famine. A drought. Naomi and her family left because there was nothing to eat. Her husband died. Her sons died, and she was left with two daughters-in-law. She had no prospects for the future. She was penniless, and without hope. That describes a lot of people in Niger. People are starving. There is a drought coming and according to the people who observe this kind of thing, it is going to get worse before it gets better.
Naomi considered herself cursed. She told her daughters-in-law “The Lord’s hand has gone out against me.” She was angry and bitter. She told them that they were better off leaving her and going back home. “Stay with me,” she said, “and things will only get worse for you.” Almost all of our patients are considered cursed because of their sickness or medical condition. They are outcasts who are rejected and usually only have two options: either be taken in by family members who are willing to support you (even though you cannot work), or start begging.
Naomi heard that back home in Bethlehem there was food, so her plan was to return. But it was a pitiful return. She would show up with nothing and be totally dependent on the good graces of her relatives. “I left full and I return empty.” Everyday more and more people show up in Niamey from the village. They come if they have family in the city, or even someone they know, and hope to be taken in. They have heard that in the city everyone is rich and there is plenty to eat. Some of them arrive and it is their first time in the city. They quickly realize that city-life is not as rosy as they were lead to believe.
Ruth was a foreigner. A “Moabitess,” (in other words, an enemy). Naomi told her to go, but she refused to leave her side, and she gave a beautiful speech of loyalty and friendship. “Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God.” How could Naomi turn her away? When she was at her lowest – a desolate widow, lowly and without protection – God sent her a friend. Ruth had nothing to offer to Naomi. They were both poor. But they would be poor together. Ruth offered herself, her company, and sometimes that is exactly what we need.
They return to Bethlehem and are reduced to gleaning the fields. Going around and gathering the leftover grain. God ordered the leftover grain to be left over for the poor, the widows, the orphans and the foreigners when he gave the Law, but Naomi probably never thought that this law would apply to her. One day we were driving through a village market and I saw a bunch of kids with bowls bending over and picking stuff off the ground. I asked someone what they were doing, and they told me that on market day all the grain is brought in and stored in big sacks. Once it is all sold off and carted away, the kids come and gather up all the little pieces that fell to the ground in the process. On a good day, they can get enough for a whole meal.
As widows, Naomi and Ruth were exposed to danger, and seemingly helpless facing a patriarchal system that basically required them to be under the protection of a man. But what is striking about this story is that all of the narrative action is moved forward by the women. Naomi comes up with the plan, and tells Ruth how to approach Boaz. Ruth takes the initiative, and she chooses Boaz, when she had the option of choosing someone else. Someone younger or richer. Call me sappy, but that sounds like love! But the point is, they had agency, even though they were women, and even though they were widows (and even though Ruth was a “Moabitess,” (sorry, I really like that word).
She chose well. Boaz was a good man. He was kind and caring, and the quality of his character is made even more apparent when he is compared with the other, closer relative. According to the Law, the closest relative would have the option to redeem the family land, so Boaz brings Naomi’s case up to him. At first he is willing, but then he finds out that in order to get the land he would have to marry Ruth, and he backs out. He isn’t willing to “endanger his own estate.” In other words, he wanted the benefits, but he wasn’t willing to take on the responsibility that came with it. Boaz, on the other hand, wanted both. For him Ruth was the benefit, and he was more than willing to take on the responsibility that came along with it. The responsibility to care for her and protect her, and most of all, to love her. He redeemed the land, and he also redeemed two widows.
That is how widows and orphans and foreigners are supposed to be treated. This is a lesson that is unfortunately very relevant right now in Israel, given the appalling treatment of African “infiltrators.” It would be good to remember what God said, “You were once strangers in a strange land,” especially when dealing with people like the Sudanese, who literally walked out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness, seeking safe haven in the Promised Land. Of course I’m not even going to go into the treatment of Palestinians (who are not foreigners anyway, but are a minority in Israel). That is another story altogether, but it would be a serious oversight if I didn’t at least make mention of them.
Ruth was a “Moabitess,” but in the end she became the great-grandmother of David, Israel’s greatest king. Ruth’s value to Naomi was “worth more than 7 sons.” That is quite a statement, especially in a patriarchal society. But her value came not from her progeny or reproductive capabilities. It didn’t come from her gender or ethnic background or anything she was. It came from what she did. Her actions. She was a loyal and good friend to someone who was in great need of a friend.