As the Torah attests, Yaakov Avinu’s emigration from the Land of Israel to Egypt was the collective action of a family — Yaakov, each of his sons, and their households, for a total of seventy souls (Shemot 1:1-5). The family’s 210-year sojourn in Egypt engendered a major change in their status, as during this period they became known as a people.
“A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know about Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are’” (Shemot 1:8-9).
In a variety of midrashic passages, our Sages teach us that this recognition resulted from our ancestors’ unwillingness to change their names, dress and language. Outwardly, at least, they remained distinct from their Egyptian neighbors.
Sadly, however, many of the Jewish people at this time were spiritually weak and unable to maintain the uncompromising monotheism that Avraham had brought to the world. This is illustrated by the well-known Midrash (Midrash Tehillim 1:20, 15:5, Zohar, Parashat Terumah 170) wherein the ministering angels declared at the Sea of Reeds, “These [Egyptians] and these [Jews] are idol worshippers; why, then, are you saving the Jewish people and drowning the Egyptians in the Sea [of Reeds], for in truth, there is no difference between them?!”
We are indeed fortunate that the Master of the Universe had very different plans for us. He knew there was but one way to guarantee the continuity of our people; namely, we would have to abandon idol worship and become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Shemot 19:6) In order to achieve this goal, we needed to undergo a radical transformation — we had to become converts, and accept the Torah and mitzvot.
This is precisely the significance of Shavuot, for it is on this day that we embraced the Torah and declared “na’aseh v’nishmah” — we will do and we will hear/learn (Shemot 24:7). At that auspicious moment, we simultaneously became gerim and Hashem’s chosen people. As the Torah states: “And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant [the Torah], you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth” (Shemot 19:5).
My rebbi and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l, known as “the Rav” by his students and followers, expanded upon this idea in a public lecture that analyzed the connection between our becoming gerim and the reading of Megillat Rut on Shavuot:
“The parsha of Matan Torah, receipt of the Torah at Mount Sinai, was the story of gerus, conversion of the Jewish people. The children of the patriarchs converted en masse at Ma’amad Har Sinai [the Revelation]. Hence the connection to Ruth. The story of Matan Torah and Ruth together comprise the topic of conversion … The principle of conversion is a fundamental connection between the events at Mount Sinai and the story of Ruth.
“As Boaz tells Ruth, she should be blessed for leaving everything behind to join a people that she did not know and for coming under the wings of the Shechina [the Divine Presence] of the G-d of Israel. In other words, she converted. The same idea is found at Ma’amad Har Sinai, where the Torah tells the story of the conversion of bnai Yisrael [the Jewish people] in conjunction with the Revelation of G-d on Mount Sinai” (public lecture, 5/24/1968).
The Rav is well-known for underscoring the concept that the exalted night of Pesach is existentially a re-experiencing of Yetziat Mitzraim, the Exodus from Egypt. This, he opines, is what the editor of the Haggadah meant when he wrote, “B’chol dor v’dor chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza miMitzraim” — in each and every generation, a person is obligated to view himself as if he personally went out of Egypt.
In other words, for the Rav, the Exodus must never be viewed as a mere historical event; rather, all Jews, for all time, were and ever will be active participants in its continuous unfolding in our lives.
In my estimation, we can build upon this idea of the Rav and extend it to Shavuot. In so doing, we can perceive this majestic Yom Tov as the time to declare “na’aseh v’nishmah,” and, like Rut, come “under the wings of the Shechina of the G-d of Israel.”