How to Welcome the Stranger: A Modern Midrash
1 in 6 contemporary Jews are new to Judaism. How are we supposed to welcome these converts? Rabbi Juan Mejia, a convert himself, provides a modern reading of the biblical story of Ruth to find some guidance.
An uneasy minyan stands at the gates of Bethlehem. The sun gilds the fields covered in grain, and every one of them eagerly wants to return to his harvest. The case at hand: the redemption of Elimelech’s field. Elimelech had left many years ago, during a famine, to live across the Dead Sea in the land of Moab. Tragically, Elimelech died without leaving an heir, his sons having perished as well without having children, and his land must be redeemed by his closest relatives. Someone from the family must take care of the land and purchase it from the widow.
The closest kin is offered the land. He gladly accepts to buy it. Then Boaz reveals the catch: “When you acquire the property from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabite, you must also acquire the wife of the deceased, so as to perpetuate the name of the deceased upon his state.” (Ruth 4:5) The man freezes where he stands. Me? Marry THAT woman? A Moabite?! Stuttering, he backs down: “Then I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own estate. You, Boaz, take over my right of redemption.” (4:6)
What was this man´s name? We do not know. The Bible calls him “Peloni Almoni,” that is, John Doe, Everyman. Because he refused to redeem a soul, his name was forgotten. Because he was willing to accept the land, but not willing to reach out to the stranger, his memory was blotted out from the land.
Boaz, knowing the kindness of Ruth, her enduring love for Naomi and for her God, then responds: “You are my witnesses today that I am acquiring from Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to his sons.” (4:9) Even though they strayed away from the land and estranged themselves from their people, I am willing to take them back. “I am also acquiring Ruth the Moabite.” Yes, because it is no shame that she is a Moabite. “The wife of Machlon,” Yes, she has a story. I honor and recognize it. “…as my wife.” For I see her as she is: all love and intention, not the conglomerate of her past and her lineage. “You are my witnesses.” I do this. not secretly, not shamefully, but publicly sanctifying and welcoming her into the loving arms of my family, and through this, my faith and my people.
What was Boaz´s reward? “Boaz begot Obed, Obed begot Jesse, Jesse begot David.” (4:21-22) One single act of kindness, of openness, of inclusion of this unpopular stranger led to the greatest king in our history. A king whose lineage, we believe, will help the world achieve its original intention. Because he redeemed a soul, he brought redemption to the world. May we live in his example always.