The description in the Torah of the holiday of Shavuot focuses on the seven week counting from Pesach but reveals little about the intrinsic nature of the day. Our sages concluded that it commemorates the date that the Torah was given on Sinai to the Jewish people. From this perspective the appropriateness of reading Megillat Rut, the story of a single Moabite convert, who becomes the great grandmother of king David, is not clear. Some relate this reading to the agricultural aspect of Shavuot which connects to an important part of the Ruth narrative. There is a way to see the vast contrast between the revelation on Sinai and Ruth’s individual choice as a reason to connect the two.
On the Seder night in the recital of Dayenu we say that if Hashem had brought us to Mount Sinai and had not given us the Torah it would have been sufficient. The divine revelation even if it hadn’t resulted in the giving of the Torah had enormous religious impact. It created an eternal bond between Hashem and the Jewish people, the nation He had taken out of slavery in Egypt. It is a singular event that led to the entire people as one accepting the commandments. The description of the revelation on Sinai is vivid and detailed; the experience is so powerful that, overcome with dread, the Israelites are afraid to go up the mountain.
The story of Ruth is terse and offers little information about the major personalities. At a critical juncture both of Naomi’s daughters-in-law accompany her as she leaves Moab to return to Bethlehem. Ruth and Orpah make opposite choices which change their destinies and the verse doesn’t clarify why. We are told nothing beyond names about Naomi’s sons and their marriage to two non-Jews. There is even a character who makes a significant decision who is anonymous, called only “ploni almoni.”
Instead of a story about a people elevating itself from the rest of humankind, Megilat Rut is the account of one woman joining the Jewish people. Ruth commits herself to her mother-in-law, first joining her people and then her faith, Her life when they arrive in Bethlehem shows devotion and kindness but there is no mention of performing the commandments. It is all about Ruth’s character, which so impresses Boaz. Her non-Jewish background, from a nation that historically was an enemy of the the Jewish people, does not prevent her from converting. She undoubtedly saw something special in her mother-in -law’s home but the Megillah does not indicate what it might have been. There is no Divine revelation in the story but Boaz, the leader of the Jews, according to the Midrash, recognizes that Ruth’s character is extraordinary.
The Megilla concludes with the lineage of David. On one level the conclusion of the story implies that the future king of Israel must inherit key character traits of compassion and devotion. Another message is that if he is focused on his royal lineage he will never properly relate to his people. The Talmud stresses the importance of the king having a problematic past,
At the same time that we commemorate our ancestors standing at Sinai, we also recall that the tablets brought down by Moshe were destined to be broken. All the power of the revelation experience lasted barely forty days before the Jews worshiped a golden calf. Clearly there is a necessary additional dimension to religious life. If accepting the Torah doesn’t lead to a transformation of character it won’t ultimately succeed. By accentuating the example of an outsider who doesn’t share the history but somehow intuited what kind of person the Torah wants us to be, our sages provide the necessary supplement to the story of revelation. Ruth not only can become part of the Jewish people but without her contribution there can’t be a king David. Without a king David there can be no descendants and there is no Messiah. The ultimate redemption of the Jewish people somehow needs the contribution of a Moabite woman devoted to her mother-in-law who was bereft of her husband and sons in a foreign land. The world was created through chesed (loving kindness) and only through will it ultimately be redeemed.
- Levaya of Rabbi Joshua Hoffman