The holiday of Shavuot, which begins Thursday night, commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Among the traditions of the holiday is to read the Book of Ruth, one of the five “scrolls” of the Bible which are read on Jewish holidays (the others being: Lamentations on the 9th of Av; Ecclesiastes on Sukkot; Esther on Purim; and Song of Songs on Passover).
Why do we read Ruth on Shavuot? The first-millennium CE collection of Rabbinic literature called Ruth Rabbah states: “This scroll [of Ruth] tells nothing either of cleanliness or of uncleanliness, neither of prohibition or permission. For what purpose then was it written? To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness.” (2.13) Yet this further begs the question: What does the theme of kindness have to do with Shavuot?
On Passover we read the Song of Songs. The verdant imagery of the book corresponds with the springtime when Passover takes place. The love between God and Israel is on full display, and Song of Songs evokes that loving sensibility. Convesely, Ecclesiastes is the book of an old man, someone in the autumn of his life, and comes at the end of a more adult series of holidays–Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.
Ruth and Shavuot come in the middle of this cycle, and the story is one of a mature love between an older man, Boaz, and a younger woman, Ruth. More than that, though, it conveys neither the deeply emotional tone of Song of Songs nor the reserved and cautious tone of Eccliastes. Rather, its message, as the Midrash states, is that lovingkindness and altruistic behavior–hesed in Hebrew–are at the core of an enduring relationship. Set as it is in famine-stricken Israel, it is fundamentally the story of people who treat each other with kindness and dignity, and who in doing so redeem the possibility of a future. That future is a Messianic future, as Ruth and Boaz are the ancestors of King David. Their altruism, their ability to do good even when all around them would tell them to be selfish, is what enables a future of prosperity and plenty to come about.
Shavuot thus forms the fulfillment of the possibilities granted to the Jewish People by the freedom of Passover. Freedom from bondage is not enough. The true manifestation of freedom comes only with responsibility, with recognizing our fellow-travelers and asking, as Ruth so poetically does, “What can I do for you?”
Chag sameach – Happy Shavuot