Shavuot, to be observed and celebrated this year on Tuesday night, Wednesday and Thursday, is a unique festival. There is nothing equivalent to the model seders that we share with others beyond our community. There is no explicit call to “those who are hungry,” as at the seder, or to house the homeless, in the spirit of the fragile sukkah. Hardly anyone attempts to equate the spirit of the holiday to political and social causes in the world at large.
There are no songs or costumes or dreidel-like props or curiosities to keep children awake deep into the night.
Of the three major holidays, this is the most private, as a wedding anniversary would be, and the giving of the Torah is compared to a marriage between God and the Jewish people. On one level, this is a holy day that is “only” about the love of a people for its Torah, and the Torah for its people. Love, on one level, is about intimacy, a sense of “only-ness.” Yet Shavuot is a time to embrace what is beyond us, as well. The Book of Ruth, which we read this holiday, awakens our hearts to the migrants, the converts and the lonely. We’re reminded that love confined to the “only” is limiting and somehow less than a love that is about “us,” the greater “us” on the periphery of communal coziness.
The great Southern fiction writer Flannery O’Conner, in “The Displaced Person,” writes about a conversation, albeit one of mixed and confused intentions, in which the first person looks at a peacock’s unfurling and says the messiah will come like that. The other person, thinking not of the peacock but of a raggedy and discomforting displaced person, responds, “Why did he have to come?” “To redeem us,” said the first, thinking beyond.
The messiah, descended from the displaced convert Ruth, will come to redeem us. By welcoming the Ruths, by bringing “all of us” into our “only,” we will be all the closer to redeeming ourselves.