The Ten Commandments and the Book of Ruth are each as important to the intellectual appreciation and religious experience of Shavuot as blintzes and cheesecake are to the culinary celebration of this beautiful holiday. Yet they are strikingly different from each other, and we are puzzled to find them sharing center stage.
What connects the Book of Ruth, a simple pastoral tale, to the central theme of this festival, “the time of the giving of the Torah”? Why commemorate the momentous occasion of G-d’s Revelation on Mount Sinai with this charming, but surely not momentous story?
To answer this question let us ponder the plot of the Book of Ruth. A careful reading of the book, which I encourage all of you to undertake in preparation for Shavuot, reveals that this is by no means merely an idyllic morality tale.
The characters in the Book of Ruth suffer almost every conceivable human tragedy: famine, betrayal, exile, sudden death, bereavement, widowhood, loneliness, poverty and shame. The book begins with the depiction of a demoralized nation of Israel, devastated by famine. One noble family deserts its brethren and betrays its homeland. The family soon experiences the pangs of exile. Its sons marry women of an alien culture, further betraying their heritage. Death strikes swiftly, leaving three widows, and one bereaved mother. Two of the women return home in shame and loneliness, with a life of poverty in store for them.
Both women, mother-in-law Naomi and daughter-in-law Ruth, return home with hope. Naomi’s is the hope of desperation; she has no choice but to hope. But Ruth’s is the hope of courage and commitment: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you dwell, I will dwell; your people shall be my people and your G-d my G-d” (Ruth 1:16).
This makes for a stirring and inspirational narrative. But the question remains: What does this drama have to do with zman matan Torateinu, the “time of the giving of the Torah?”
Does this tale match up to the majesty and power of the Ten Commandments? What connection is there between G-d’s Universal Laws, His do’s and don’ts for the human race, and this sad tale? How does this story, in which G-d barely plays a role, find its way into the liturgy of a day which celebrates the most foundational religious experience?
For me, the answer is apparent.
Two texts are chosen for Shavuot. The Ten Commandments incorporate the Torah’s highest values: compassion, generosity, loyalty and responsibility for each other — the laws, standards and requirements of a just and successful society. The Book of Ruth proffers but one example of a society which defies those values with disastrous consequences but achieves inspiring results when it abides by them.
• • •
The Rabbis (Yalkut Ruth, 594) tell us that the Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, to teach us that one must be prepared for suffering and poverty in one’s search to master Torah. Mastery of Torah does not come easy, and a life led according to the Torah’s precepts calls for significant sacrifice. But eventually, the difficulties entailed by a total commitment to the Torah’s demands prove to be the very sources of a life of happiness and fulfillment.
The tragic circumstances of the Book of Ruth gradually recede. The loneliness is overcome by a caring community, the shame is lifted by understanding and forgiveness, the poverty is ended by charity, and the widowhood is overcome by love. Even the bereavement is eventually softened by rebirth.
Rabbi Zeira in the Midrash (Ruth Rabbah 2:15) wonders: “This scroll teaches us nothing about ritual purity or impurity, nor does it inform us about what is forbidden and what is permissible. Why then was it given a place in the Biblical canon?” To which he answers, “It is in order to teach us about the benefits which ensue from a life lived with compassion and loving-kindness.”
Our sages teach us that the Book of Ruth was written by the Prophet Samuel. In it he tells us a story which is but an illustration of the lesson that our father Abraham taught us by his example centuries before Samuel: “Loving-kindness, exemplified by simple hospitality, pre-empts even the direct experience of the Almighty’s Presence!”
The Ten Commandments describe the ultimate encounter of Man with G-d and declare G-d’s expectations of His people. The tale of Ruth and Naomi epitomizes His people’s history.
Our people have known all of the tragedies described in the story, and more. But as we persisted through those tragedies we came to glimpse what a truly benevolent society can resemble. We have experienced, albeit thus far never yet completely, the blessings of redemption.
Those blessings result from our adherence to the values of the Ten Commandments. One example of those blessings is described in the exquisitely uplifting Book of Ruth, which culminates in the birth of King David, the symbol and progenitor of the Messiah, with whom will come the final redemption.