The holiday of Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Among the traditions of the holiday is reading the Book of Ruth, one of the five “scrolls” of the Bible which are read on Jewish holidays (the others being Lamentations on the 9th of Av, Ecclesiastes on Sukkot, Esther on Purim and Song of Songs on Passover).
Why do we read Ruth on Shavuot? The first-millennium CE collection of Rabbinic literature, Ruth Rabbah, states: “This scroll [of Ruth] tells nothing either of cleanliness nor of uncleanliness, neither of prohibition nor permission. For what purpose then was it written? To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness.” (2.13) Yet this leads to the question “What does the theme of kindness have to do with Shavuot?”
On Passover we read the Song of Songs. The verdant imagery of the book corresponds with the springtime when Passover takes place. The love between God and Israel is on full display, and Song of Songs evokes that loving sensibility. Conversely, Ecclesiastes is the book of an old man, someone in the autumn of his life, and comes at the end of a more adult series of holidays – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
Ruth and Shavuot come in the middle of this cycle, and the story is one of a mature love between an older man, Boaz, and a younger woman, Ruth. More than that, though, it conveys neither the deeply emotional tone of Song of Songs nor the reserved and cautious tone of Ecclesiastes. Rather, its message, as the Midrash states, is that lovingkindness and altruistic behavior (chesed) are at the core of an enduring relationship. Set as it is in famine-stricken Israel, it is fundamentally the story of people who treat each other with kindness and dignity, and who in doing so redeem the possibility of a future. That future is a Messianic future, as Ruth and Boaz are the ancestors of King David. Their ability to do good, even when all around them would tell them to be selfish, is what enables a future of prosperity and plenty.
Shavuot thus forms the fulfillment of the possibilities granted to the Jewish People by the freedom of Passover. Freedom from bondage is not enough. The true manifestation of freedom comes only with responsibility, with recognizing our fellow travelers and asking, as Ruth so poetically does, “What can I do for you?”
Josh Feigelson, an alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship (Class 14), is Founder and Director of Ask Big Questions, an initiative of Hillel International that creates training and resources for people of all backgrounds to participate in and facilitate meaningful, reflective, text-centered conversations. From 2005-2011, Josh served as the Campus Rabbi at Northwestern University Hillel. A 1998 alumnus of Yale with a BA in Music, Josh thought he was going to be an orchestra conductor (and was, in college) until he spent a year at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and fell in love with Torah study. He was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2005. He holds a PhD in Religious Studies from Northwestern, where his doctoral dissertation focused on the the work of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg in the 1960s and 70s. Josh and his wife, Natalie Blitt, are the parents of three boys, and live in Skokie, IL. Additionally, Josh is currently hoping to meet more of our alumni around the continent by doing Scholar-in-Residence gigs and can be reached at email@example.com.