Whenever our sages want to point to a shining example of Jewish womanhood, of self-sacrificing devotion to the higher things in life, of loyalty and modesty and excellence of character, they speak of Ruth.

The strange thing about this great woman, whose story we read on the festival of Shavuot, is that she was not really a Jew by birth, but a Moabite princess. Yet, perhaps in this fact lies one of the most important lessons that we are to learn from Ruth. By her own strength of character and genuine love for the Jewish people and the holy Torah, she became one of the greatest Jewish women, the ancestor of King David, from whom, in turn, the Redeemer will stem.

How did it come about that the princess of one of the not-so-friendly neighbors of Israel became an example of Jewish womanhood?

Well, for one thing, even long before Ruth had ever met any Jews, she had become disgusted with the idol worship of her own people, which was one of the lowest and most cruel. For among the gods whom the Moabites worshipped was Moloch, in whose honor young children were thrown into the fire. Ruth realized soon that no mercy, or kindness, or justice could be expected from such idol worship, and she searched for a new religion.

Then, one of the ten worst famines in all of mankind’s history hit the Land of Israel. Elimelech, one of the notables of Judah, came to Moab, where he hoped to find food and an easier life. Ruth became acquainted with the Jewish family and with their religion. Princess Ruth was happy to marry one of the two sons of Elimelech, even though it meant that she had to give up the comforts and honor of her royal position to join the household of a Jewish refugee.

Things became even worse when G‑d punished Elimelech for not having stayed with his own people in Judah to share their sorrow and plight and to help them, instead of running away to Moab. Elimelech and his two sons died far from their home. Elimelech’s wife, the beautiful Naomi, was left a widow without children. She decided to return to her homeland, where her late husband at least owned some land. Naturally, she would not think of asking her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, to go with her to share in her poor, joyless life, and she asked them to return to their homes. But, as it turned out, only Orpah, after much persuasion from her mother-in-law, turned back to her own people. Ruth, however, had become so convinced of the truth and beauty of the Jewish religion and customs that under no circumstances would she now part from Naomi to return to her royal home and live as an idol worshipper. Her mother-in-law tried hard to dissuade her, but all her arguments that she had nothing to offer her, while here she had so much to gain, were in vain. Ruth’s reply, the highest and noblest of all expressions of faithfulness, was:

“Entreat me not to leave thee,
And to return home from following after thee;
For whither thou goest, I will go;
And where thou lodgest, I will lodge;
Thy people are my people, and thy G‑d, my G‑d.
Where thou diest, will I die, and there be buried;
May G‑d do so to me, and more also,
If aught but death part thee and me.”

Thus spoke this noble young woman, and these words have become the immortal slogan of those who have learned to appreciate the truth and beauty of the Torah.

Little concerned over the prospect of poverty and hunger, Ruth accompanied Naomi to the land of her late husband, putting her hope and faith in G‑d that He would not forsake them in their need.

When Naomi and Ruth arrived in Beth Lechem, the city of Judah where Elimelech had come from, it was the time of the barley harvest. The famine had passed, and the soil was again yielding its fruit. The two women had nothing to eat. Elimelech’s possessions had meanwhile been taken over by his relatives, and it would take some time to regain them and sell them. The natural thing would have been for Naomi to go out and get some food, for after all she was well known here at home, and the people would surely help her. Were they not greatly moved by her words, “Call me no longer ‘Naomi,’ the Sweet One, but ‘Mara,’ the Bitter One, for G‑d has dealt very bitterly with me”?

However, Ruth would not hear of letting her mother-in-law go out in search of food. She herself insisted that Naomi stay behind, while she went into the fields, like all the other poor, to gather barley left behind, forgotten or fallen aside during the cutting and binding of the barley. For the poor and needy were not forgotten during the harvest.

G‑d surely was with Ruth. The owner of the fields she happened to visit in search of food was none other than Boaz, or Ibtzan, the tenth of the judges of Israel who ruled after Joshua.

Boaz was a wealthy and very good-natured man. He greeted the woman in a most friendly way. Recognizing that she was not a common beggar, he ordered his workers to treat her with respect. Ruth got her full share of the leket (gleanings from the cutting), pe’ah (the corner of the field left uncut for the poor), and shikchah (forgotten sheaves in the field).

Ruth was overjoyed. Full of good cheer, she returned to Naomi and showed her the rich harvest she had brought. Ruth told her mother-in-law of the friendliness of the owner of the fields where she had searched for food. To her surprise, she learned that Boaz was a close relative of her late husband, and second in line as redeemer of Elimelech’s properties. The redeemer was also duty-bound to marry the widow of his deceased kinsman.

On Naomi’s advice, Ruth visited Boaz and entrusted her fate and that of her mother-in-law to him. Boaz was very much touched by this turn of events, and Ruth, with her gentle manner and nobility of character, found great favor in his eyes. Although he pointed out to his newly found relative that not he, but another and closer kinsman, was first in line to redeem Elimelech’s property, he promised to do what he could and stand ready to fulfill this obligation, if the other man refused.

This was exactly what happened. The man who was first in line did not claim his rights, and so Boaz not only redeemed the property of Elimelech, but married the modest and gentle young woman who had given up her royal palace to convert to Judaism and live as a Jewess.

Boaz (a descendant of the courageous prince Nachshon of the tribe of Judah, who was first to jump into the high waves of the Red Sea) was the most important person of the Jewish people in his days. He and Ruth were blessed with children, and Ruth lived long enough to see her great-grandson David become king of Israel.