The biblical account of the exodus from Egypt and the story of Ruth the Moabite each explores the process of human suffering and salvation. The element of avdut or hard work plays a different role in each narrative.
The story of the exodus in the book of Shemot is punctuated by three key words that describe the experience of the Israelites in Egypt. The first is avdut or servitude (va-ya’avidu mitzrayim et benei yisrael be-farekh) — the Hebrews are condemned to slave labor. The second is inui or oppression (ve-kha’asher ye’anu oto, ken yirbeh ve-khen yifrotz) — the Israelites are tormented by Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The third is gerut or foreignness (ki ger hayiti be-eretz nokhriyah) — the Israelites are foreigners in the strange land of Egypt.
It is striking that the first chapter of the book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, describes the experience of Naomi, her husband and sons in Moab with the very same language that the Torah uses to describe the exodus experience. There is the gerut: Elimelekh, Naomi, and their family journey to the foreign land of Moab to escape famine — lagur b’sdei Moav. There is also the inui: Naomi declares to the women of Bethlehem that she and her family feel oppressed by God (va-Hashem anah bi).
There is one key element of the Egypt experience, however, that is missing in the description of Naomi’s experience in Moab. Unlike the Exodus narrative, the word avdut — oppressive labor and servitude — is never used to describe the suffering of Naomi’s family. Interestingly, the root of avdut appears only in the closing verses of the book of Ruth. The child born to Ruth and Boaz, who supports and cares for Naomi in her old age, is named “Oved” — literally translated as someone who continually engages in hard work.
There is a powerful lesson to be learned from this literary comparison. In the story of the exodus, avdut is the problem: The Jews are forced into slavery, bondage, and oppressive labor. In the story of Ruth, however, avodah (Oved) — continuous hard work, which derives from the very same root as avdut — is the solution. The redemption of Naomi is in her grandson Oved, who symbolizes the hard work and devotion of her family and most of all, of her daughter-in-law Ruth.
The events of recent Jewish history and the ideals of religious Zionism reinforce the message of the book of Ruth. Religious Zionism is about human initiative and hard work guided by Divine providence. It believes that avodah is not the trademark of slavery but rather the key to redemption. It took devoted, human labor to drain swamps, build kibbutzim, yishuvim, cities, infrastructure, businesses, and communities in the land of Israel in the last 70 years — as well as schools, hospitals, synagogues, and houses of Torah study. It is telling that the motto of the early Zionist pioneers was precisely the idea of avodah — human enterprise and creativity. As the song goes — “zum golly, golly… he-chalutz lemaan ha-avodah…” — the pioneer is for the work, and the work is for the pioneer. And the mantra of religious Zionism is Torah, avodah, and eretz yisrael.
This season between Passover and Shavuot is marked not only by ancient Jewish anniversaries — the redemption from Egypt on the fourteenth day of Nisan and the revelation at Mount Sinai on (or around) the sixth day of Sivan. Modern Jewish history marks historic moments in this season as well. Yom HaShoah, recalls the tragedy of the Holocaust, Yom Hazikaron pays solemn tribute to the soldiers who made Israel a national homeland in 1948, Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrates the establishment and vitality of the state of Israel, and Yom Yerushalayim marks the moment in 1967 that Jerusalem became again the physical center of the Jewish universe.
The seventy years since the establishment of the State of Israel has witnessed the transformation of the nation of Israel from the avdut (slave labor) of the Exodus narrative to the oved (hard work and human enterprise) of the story of Ruth. As we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim and the holiday of Shavuot, we must acknowledge that we are not only the children of the Exodus but also the children of Ruth. We must recognize that it is the very combination of Divine providence and human initiative that ensures both the posterity and prosperity of the Jewish nation.
Dean Rachel Friedman is the founder and dean of Lamdeinu, the Center for Jewish Learning in Teaneck. Visit lamdeinu.org.