This week another Jewish holiday was celebrated. Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, is the third pilgrimage holiday. Did you hear anything about it? Do you know what it’s about? Do you miss it every year???
The first of the pilgrimage holidays, Sukkot, is comprised of rituals that includes building a sukkah, inviting family and friends to eat in it, waving a lulav and etrog, and reading from the book of Ecclesiastes to remind and shed perspective on the Israelite’s time in the desert. The second, Pesach, is a very family-oriented celebration that includes joining in at a seder, reading the hagaddah, eating matzah, and reading from Song of Songs to retell and teach of the Israelites exodus from Egypt and the transformation from slavery to freedom.
Unfortunately, Shavuot tends to slip by unnoticed because it falls in a time slot that often competes with Memorial Day Weekend, graduations, the end of academic calendars, or the start of summer vacations. It’s truly a shame that it does not get more airtime, because it is an interesting “cerebral” holiday with tremendous universal messages. Shavuot is about the revelation at Mount Sinai and the receipt of the Torah. It is a time to contemplate our relationship with God, the land of Israel, and what it means to live a life according to Jewish values.
It is no accident that the commonly read text during Shavuot is the Book of Ruth. In the short read, Ruth speaks to a wide variety of audiences as she teaches lessons of faith, loyalty, commitment, integrity, and love. She is a complex and deep character – a foreigner, a non-Jew, a wife, a childless woman, a daughter-in-law, a widow, a Jew-by-choice (the first “convert”), a connector, the great grandmother of King David – who voluntarily transforms herself in ways that ultimately unite a family and a people with God in the land of Israel.
I love Ruth. I can’t help being drawn to her. I find her confidence, self-knowledge, and fearlessness to be refreshing and inspiring. She is a role model who embodies female empowerment and defies stereotypes. As a Moabite woman, Ruth was married to a Jewish man for ten years during which they had no children. When he died, instead of staying with her family and people, she follows her mother-in-law Naomi back to her homeland – the land of Israel. There, Ruth openly adopts the Jewish way of life and values; eventually marrying one of Naomi’s kinsmen (Boaz) and bearing his child to perpetuate their family line.
What’s notable is what Ruth says and does throughout the book, with no prompting or cajoling. Her decision to follow Naomi – to a strange land and a different religion – displays tremendous courage and faith. Here are a few examples…
First, her actions and subsequent rewards are reminiscent of Abraham’s. In Genesis 12:1-2 (“Lech L’cha”), “God said to Abram, ‘Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.’” Ruth bravely follows suit centuries later and reaps similar rewards.
Next, Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law cannot be ignored. Her behavior is quite unique and extraordinary. She refuses to leave Naomi; her faithfulness, love, and devotion clearly made evident in her famous declaration: “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your god my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may God do to me if anything but death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:16-17). Ruth challenges God to punish her if she waivers from her course. And, despite an unknown and unclear future, she pledges to stand by the widowed, bereaved, and destitute Naomi, with no expectation of remarrying or having children of her own.
Finally, when Ruth takes the initiative with Boaz – the most obvious choice of a husband and sperm donor – in an extremely direct and open manner, she does so with no hesitation, shame, or inappropriateness. The resulting union between them is a proper and legitimate one to perpetuate the family line, and to make Naomi happy. They ultimately are rewarded with the birth of King David.
Ruth emerges as a good person who is more concerned about the welfare of others than her own. A Jewish feminist (Gail Twersky Reimer in “Her Mother’s House”) offers the possibility that marriage and motherhood were not as important to Ruth as the values of loyalty and friendship. While this view may not be popular, it offers a plausible explanation for Ruth’s motivations throughout the book.
So, why do we read Ruth on Shavuot? In four simple words Ruth reveals the essence of what it means to be a Jew – ”Ameich ami, ve’Elohaich Elohai” – “Your people will be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Ruth’s commitment to the Jewish people clearly moved the rabbis of old to include her story in the celebration and liturgy of Shavuot. I believe it was their hope that, just as Ruth made a firm commitment to live Jewishly, the Jewish people would re-examine and renew their own commitments yearly on Shavuot.
Keep your eye on the calendar for next year!