by Ben Levenson
Shavuot is one of the least well known important holidays in Jewish tradition. People know about passover and matzah, yom kippur and fasting, and hanukkah candles, but not Shavuot. Perhaps it’s because the customs, staying up all night studying and eating dairy (for all those lactose intolerant Jews) is less sexy than a passover seder about liberation and Hanukkah games and candles. And perhaps it’s also because the holiday commemorates receiving laws at Mount Sinai. I remember when I was a kid at one of these night study sessions reading through the ten commandments with a group from our synagogue and trying to unpack the meanings and the nuance in each of them. Now--that was sort of fun for me, but it was dry and often arcane and perhaps not all that exciting for your average modern Jew.
Yet, Shavuot is a rich holiday with timely teachings about welcoming strangers and economic justice. To commemorate its origins as a harvest festival, we customarily read the Book of Ruth on the second day of Shavuot. It’s the story of Ruth, a non-Jewish woman who marries into a Jewish family who then becomes a widow and falls into poverty. Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi are forced to move from their home to find food. And Naomi and Ruth go to Israel where Naomi’s family is from and where it is law for farmers to leave a portion of their crop unharvested, for the poor. They then find Boaz who takes them in and allows them to work on his field and even instructs his workers to help them. Ultimately Boaz marries Ruth and the story ends with the genealogy of King David. It turns out that Ruth, is his great grandmother.
What are we to make of this? This is clearly a story about justice and a reminder of how to treat the poor and the migrant in our times of austerity, workplace abuse, and staggering inequality. Not only is Boaz welcoming, but society is structured in such a way that Boaz has to leave a portion of his land. Not only that, Boaz is welcoming to Ruth who is a poor non-Jewish widow. And. And! Because of this generosity and welcoming, Ruth begets King David, one of the central figures of Jewish tradition and the writer of the Psalms, some of the most influential and widely read literature in all of human history.
Naomi and Ruth are not unlike our modern day migrants who in desperation are forced to make treacherous journeys to find a better life for their family. Like farm workers who pick berries in the pacific Northwest or who build houses and buildings in construction sites around the country or who work in the poultry industry with dizzying line speeds and toxic chemicals. In our world, these migrants are villainized and intimidated. Their wages are stolen and they are routinely forced to work in dangerous conditions without protection.
The Book of Ruth and by extension the entire holiday of Shavuot reminds us that not only can all share in the world’s harvest, but that, in fact, immigrants and migrants can often be the source, like King David, of great and beautiful things. I take this to mean that not only should we help immigrants, but we should recognize their humanity, their creativity, and their power to make our world better.