Ruth, the Mother of all Converts

Every religion has its heroes and role models. For converts to Judaism, the Biblical Ruth, the daughter of the king of Moab, is the archetypical personality. Ruth and her forlorn mother-in-law, Naomi, suffered greatly losing their husbands in Moab. Without any apparent motive or personal benefit, Ruth placed her lot with the Jewish people. Ruth’s persistence in staying with Naomi and her proclamation, "…Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die…” remain inspirational rallying cries for converts in every generation. She wholeheartedly accepted the tenets of Judaism and became the consummate faithful Jew, and the great-grandmother of King David – the heir to the Messiah. Why is Ruth called the Mother of all Converts? Let's find out.

The story of Ruth is read on the Pentecostal holiday called Shavuot (Feast of Weeks). One of the reasons for reading the Scroll of Ruth is that Shavuot commemorates the people of Israel receiving the Torah, just like Ruth did as an individual. Ruth’s very name in Hebrew alludes to this concept. “Gematria” or numerology is one of the techniques of Biblical exegesis (or methods of extracting meaning from Scripture), where hidden messages can be revealed. The three Hebrew letters that form her name are Reish-Vav-Tuf. In Gematria, Ruth’s name adds up to 606. What does that mean?

All non-Jews are bound by the covenant of Noah. The Talmud demonstrates how verses in the Torah teach us that when Adam was created, God gave him six basic laws of morality to observe. After the Flood of Noah, mankind was given one more, not tearing a limb from a live animal (general prohibition of caused pain to animals). These seven universal laws are known in Judaism as the “Sheva Mitzvot B’nei Noach,” or Seven Noahide Laws. As an ethical non-Jew, Ruth had already accepted these seven laws. With her conversion to Judaism, she became obligated in 613. The difference between these two numbers is 606, the numerology of her name. Thus, we find a hint in this matriarch’s very identity to her being a model for conversion. However, her connection to conversion doesn’t end there.

Being a “stranger” to a particular group or faith is normally beset with feelings of isolation or social discomfort. For a convert to Judaism, there also exists this notion. One can remain an outsider, even after they’ve matriculated through the process and committed themselves to a strictly religiously Jewish lifestyle. A convert travels a very lonely road. Can we learn anything else from the example of Ruth as to how one can transition into the ranks of the Jewish people, and ultimately “Fit in?”

The sages of Israel teach, “Dearer to God than all the Israelites who stood at Mt Sinai is the convert. Had the Israelites not witnessed the lightning, thunder, and trembling mountain, and had they not listened to the sounds of the shofar, they would not have accepted the Torah. But the convert, who did not see or hear any of these things, surrendered to God and accepted the yoke of Heaven. Can anyone be dearer to God than that?” (Midrash Tanchuma Lech Lecha 6:32) The secret to success in Jewish commitment might be found in the “surrender to God” process that Ruth herself went through. But exactly how does that work?

Boaz, the leader of the Jewish people and a kinsman of Naomi’s late husband Elimelech, has just noticed Ruth, the proselyte, gleaning in his fields. He is overcome by her modest demeanor and kindness and replies “I have been fully informed of all that you have done for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband – how you left your father and mother (royalty) and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known yesterday or previously. May God reward your deed, and may your payment be full from the Lord, the God of Israel, under Whose Wings you have come to seek refuge.” (Ruth 2:11-12)

Ruth is given a blessing from the leader of the Jewish people, “May your payment be full from the Lord…under whose wings you have come to seek refuge.” Perhaps Boaz was conveying to this sincere convert that having tasted royalty, opulence and “the good life,” during her previous existence might leave unrealistic expectations upon joining a newly adopted people. Things might get very rough. Even the most idealistic nation has members who often don’t embrace the proper attitude toward newcomers. Ruth is reminded, therefore, that she has entered the comforting wings of the Divine Presence. The enduring message for the rest of us is this; One’s ability to “surrender to God” is the greatest attribute a person can use in finding his/her place among the Chosen People.