On Shavuot Jewish people traditionally read the Book of Ruth. As in many Jewish texts, The Book of Ruth can be understood in many ways. We can see Ruth as a metaphor for the Jewish people, accepting a peoplehood and a faith without really knowing what it entailed. We admire the story of Ruth and its portrayal of deep friendship and loyalty. Ruth is a true friend to Naomi despite the fact that Naomi felt hopeless and bitter. I have always appreciated the book and its pastoral backdrop and reference to the days that Jews lived closer to nature and the seasons. But this year I realized something very different. Ruth and Naomi were poor. Returning to Bethlehem widowed, homeless and weak they experienced all the insecurities and humiliations of poverty. Their futures were bleak. They were vulnerable, hungry and alone.
The Book of Ruth provides a narrative example of the mitzvot first mentioned in Parshat Kedoshim for providing for the less fortunate. “When you reap your harvest, do not completely harvest the ends of your fields. Do not pick up individual stalks that have fallen. Do not pick the incompletely formed grape clusters in your vineyards. All must be left for the poor and the stranger. I am G-d, the Almighty.” (Leviticus 19:9-10.)
Naomi must have taught Ruth about the laws of leket and pe-ah (leaving fallen grain and not picking the corners of the field) for Ruth, soon after their return to Bethlehem asked Naomi “ Let me now go to the field and glean among the ears of corn.”( Ruth 2:2) Ruth knew that every impoverished person had the legal right from the Torah to glean from the fields. It was a mitzvah, a commandment from G-d that food be left for those who were less fortunate. The poor in the agrarian world of the Book of Ruth were both visible and part of society. No doubt there was a stigma and a shame to being poor. Naomi herself might have felt too embarrassed to go out to the fields to glean, but food was a right guaranteed by the Torah and the poor were not hidden away.
It is a Thursday morning and I am volunteering at the Brighton Food Cupboard. Once a month clients are able to call in and go “shopping” for three days’ worth of food. This program is supplemental to food stamps. I call John at 9:30. There are no fresh vegetables when I “shop” with him and the meat supply is down to a package of Italian sausage and hotdogs. He is able to get a certain number of proteins, grains, fruits and vegetables. A couple hours later that morning a whole shipment of rutabagas and strawberries arrive. The food available is a little random, one day the refrigerator is full of vegetables and the next week there is nothing. I haven’t worked there for a long time but am so impressed by the whole operation. This food bank is our modern day pe-ah and leket. These cans and boxes are the product of both charity and of purchasing errors and the miscalculation of our major grocery stores.
Today there is no law that commands the citizens of the world to feed the poor and there is no binding obligation. Ironically despite the growing incidents of food insecurity both here and throughout the world we in the U.S. throw out almost half of the food that we purchase. We over estimate our needs when we shop and underutilize the food that we have bought. Then we throw it and its wrappings and containers into the landfill contributing to other environmental problems. The poor today have fewer options. Unlike Ruth, the poor often live far from the fields and orchards leaving them at the mercy of food banks and of ever changing regulations regarding food stamps and other programs. In 2013, 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households and that statistic included 15.8 million children. We don’t see our poor, they are invisible to us. We live in different neighborhoods, shop in different markets and it is easy to forget poverty in the midst of incredible abundance.
The solutions to poverty and hunger are evasive and complicated, but this holiday, with the reading of the Book of Ruth, reminds us of a world where the value of food security was seen as a mitzvah. With the excessive waste of food that occurs in this country we could, if we had the will, feed everybody. The poor in this country might not be able to get to the fields to pick up the remnants left behind, but the Torah ideal that food is not a privilege but a right is as true today as it was for Naomi and Ruth.