Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Shavuot

The holiday of Shavuot begins this evening.  It marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  Each of the major holidays has a megillah assigned to them.  On Passover we read Song of Songs.  On Sukkot we read from Ecclesiastes.  On Shavuot we read from the Book of Ruth.  This fascinating story tells the tale of Ruth, a Moabite, who marries into the Israelite family of Naomi.  Sadly their husbands die and so Naomi urges her to return to her own country.

Ruth refuses and pledges herself to Naomi and her people.  “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. 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 the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17)

And with these words Ruth pledges herself not only to her mother in law but to the Jewish people.  Why is this story assigned to Shavuot?  One reason is that just as the Jewish people choose the Torah so too does Ruth.  Her personal choice is mirrored in the people’s communal decision to accept the Torah’s privileges and responsibilities. 

There is, however, another reason hidden within the tale.  Ruth is a Moabite.  The Moabites were Israel’s enemy.  She is therefore the stranger par excellence.  No one can be more distant from the Jewish people.  Yet she still chooses to wed herself to the Jewish people.  Even more significantly she is welcomed into the communal fold.

When Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem, one of the city’s leading citizens, Boaz, treats them with compassion.  Boaz lives by the Torah’s command: “When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow—in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.” (Deuteronomy 24:19)  The Book is therefore a test of society’s ability to live by the commandments of the Torah.  Ruth is a stranger.  She is an orphan.  She is a widow. 

These categories represent the powerless in ancient Israelite society.  They lack a protector.  Boaz rushes, without hesitation and doubt, to Ruth’s defense. “When Ruth got up again to glean, Boaz gave orders to his workers, ‘You are not only to let her glean among the sheaves, without interference, but you must also pull some stalks out of the heaps and leave them for her to glean, and not scold her.’” (Ruth 2:15-16)  The fact that Ruth and Boaz are later married, and live happily ever after, is secondary.

Boaz welcomes the stranger, the orphan and the widow.  His act reminds us of our own obligations.  The Book of Ruth calls us once again to the demands of a life wedded to Torah.  As we celebrate the giving of the Torah we must also ask about its central obligations.  The Book of Ruth spells out these obligations.  Always reach out to those in need. 

Each and every year when we read this book we are asked by its story if we are living up to these demands.  Are we treating with compassion the weakest and most vulnerable in our society?

Boaz and Ruth have a child and a measure of joy is restored in Naomi’s heart.  She is told, “Blessed be the Lord who has not withheld a redeemer from you today!” (Ruth 4:14)  And then we read the most unlikely of epitaphs.  Their great grandson is King David.  From David’s line, the tradition teaches us, the messiah will be called.

The redemption of the world does indeed begin with one act of kindness.

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