Ruth in Boaz's Field, a painting by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1828.
Along with eating cheesecake and beautifying our synagogues with flowers and greenery, we read on Shavuot the Book of Ruth. Why? What does Ruth’s story of recognizing Hashem’s presence and involvement in the world have to do with Shavuot? Why is her story so important in our celebration of receiving the Torah?
Ruth was a non-Jewish woman who married into a Jewish family and after the deaths of her husband and father-in-law, she left her homeland and decided to live the rest of her life with her mother-in-law, Naomi. Why is the story of a non-Jewish woman such an integral part of our festival?
The Yalkut Shimoni, a compilation of insights on the books of the Torah, explains that the reading of Ruth on Shavuot teaches that, “The Torah is acquired only through suffering and affliction.” I think he’s implying that during the time of the Book of Ruth, the Children of Israel were suffering in exile and through the pain and anguish of difficult times they patiently waited to receive the Torah, the event we celebrate on Shavuot.
The Abudraham, a rabbi who lived in 14th-century Spain, explains that the Book of Ruth is read on this holiday because the events described took place “at the beginning of the barley harvest,” which coincided with Shavuot. The Abudraham also says that the Children of Israel were required to undergo circumcision and mikvah immersion, just as converts do, in order to receive the Torah. We read this megilah “In honor of Ruth who was a convert and became the mother of Israel’s royal family, we say when we received the Torah, we were all converts,” wrote Abudraham.
The Bekhor Shor, a French rabbi and scholar who lived in the 12th century, gives another interesting answer. The prophet Shmuel wrote the Book of Ruth to highlight the genealogy of King David and his connection to Ruth the Moabite, his great grandmother. Ruth is at the forefront of the Shavuot holiday because King David and the future Messiah are descended from her.
I think the reason why we read this megilah on Shavuot is to demonstrate that if someone can learn to unconditionally embrace Hashem and his Torah then so can we. Ruth is a role model for all of us; she shows us how to behave in front of Hashem. After Ruth’s husband died and she left her home for a strange land, she gained more faith in Hashem rather than remaining a Moabite. She told Naomi, “Your nation is my nation, your God is my God” Ruth 1:16. Why does she suddenly possess so much faith in the Jewish God?
Ruth reminds us to always be grateful for our Jewish Identities. I think the Book of Ruth has a greater message as well. We are living in a society filled with temptations and opportunities to stray from Hashem. There are things in my life that always tempt me to stray from my priorities and religion such as YouTube, Facebook, movies and TV shows. All of these temptations aren’t detrimental but when they become a constant addiction and when they take precedence over learning and developing our Judaism it becomes a problem. It is important to be like Ruth — resist temptations and remember that we are members of the proud Jewish nation.
Ruth inspires me to pursue worthwhile activities such as focusing on my spiritual and educational growth. Shavuot is a time of joy and a time to experience the spiritual presence of the giving of the Torah. The Book of Ruth is an essential component of that epic event. Chag Sameach!