What Ruth and Lincoln Shared
A meditation on the holiday of Shavuot and its connections to America's greatest president
America’s greatest president and an ancient Moabite turned Jewess make an unlikely pair. Yet as American Jews prepare to read the Book of Ruth on the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, their unexpected similarities are worthy of consideration.
For those in need of a refresher, the biblical tale recounts the loyalty of a bereft foreign widow, Ruth, to her elderly Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, whose husband had also passed away. The two, with little hope of stability and sustenance, journey back to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem amid the political, social turmoil, and moral chaos of the pre-monarchical period. Ruth demonstrates strategic initiative in seeking economic support for her and Naomi by gleaning in the fields of strangers, only to stumble upon Naomi’s distant relative, Boaz. Appealing to Boaz’s generosity, Ruth inspires him to marry her and ensure the continuation of Naomi’s family line. The couple produce a son whose eventual descendant is the legendary King David.
Abraham Lincoln, like Ruth, emerged from humble beginnings. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was barely literate, and the two were estranged for most of their adult lives. Ruth’s father is never mentioned in the text, and pointedly, Naomi initially discourages Ruth from accompanying her to Bethlehem and prods Ruth to return to her mother’s house in Moab.
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Both figures demonstrated a unique-for-their-time moral courage. Ruth was a member of a nation known for its paganism and stinginess. The Moabites had seduced earlier generations of Israelites into idol worship and had cruelly refused to offer them bread and water after their exodus from Egypt. Ruth’s unyielding loyalty to Naomi, and her efforts to ensure her survival despite the historical baggage between their two peoples, is therefore remarkable. Lincoln’s own ethical courage in leading the country’s fight against slavery has been well documented. As David S. Reynolds’ recent biography emphasizes, the president’s political position translated into his personal interactions as well. When the aged abolitionist Sojourner Truth journeyed to Washington to meet the president before she died, he signed her autograph book “For Auntie Sojourner Truth.” Truth recalled their interaction: “I was never treated by anyone with more kindness and cordiality than was shown me by that great and good man, Abraham Lincoln.”
Although the U.S. wartime commander in chief and the unheralded immigrant quietly gathering grain lived starkly different lives, a surprising echo occurs in their respective travels. “Whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” So rings Ruth’s pledge to Naomi as they began the arduous journey toward rebuilding their lives. Ruth saw that while success was uncertain, faith in another despite difference, faith in national purpose, and faith in God would guide her way.
On February 11, 1861, Abraham Lincoln too set out on an uncertain journey. Hoping to avoid civil war amid a boiling political and cultural implosion, Lincoln knew only that the road would be rough.
“I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington,” Lincoln said in his famous farewell address as he prepared to depart Springfield, Illinois, for Washington, D.C. “Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.”
Lincoln’s rhetoric, which so often in his later and more famous addresses was attuned to a biblical register (“four score and seven years ago,” “the mystic chords of memory,” “the better angels of our nature”), here too hearkened to ancient times. Whether or not his echoing of Ruth’s pledge was intentional, the parallel between his and her attestation remains. Lincoln too sought to bridge polities of historical animosity. He too hoped for restoration amid the ruins. And he knew that goodness would only emerge from a citizenship who possessed a sense of covenant, who heard the call for connection and community, and who desired to be guided by the divine.
As Ruth’s words are read this Shavuot amid our own political and social turmoil, what Ruth and Lincoln shared continues to remind us wherein lies the hope that all will yet be well.