On the holiday of Shavuot which celebrates the giving of the Torah, we read the story of Ruth. It is, at first glance, a particularly strange choice. Why would Judaism, which has a prohibition against marrying a Moabite (Deuteronomy 23:3) use the story of a marriage to a Moabite, on any holiday, let alone one of the three festivals of pilgrimage, and the one devoted to the giving of the laws?
Peoplehood, Land and Religion
The three festivals represent three parts of the collective Jewish nationhood as told in the five books of Moses:
- Passover tells the story of Jews becoming a nation, a single people. While they entered Egypt as a single family of 70 souls, they left Egyptian bondage as a people numbering 600,000 men. Their vast numbers yet common experience of slavery and freedom bound them together as a singular nation.
- The holiday of Sukkot, Tabernacles, represents both the travels and protection of the Jews as well as their final destination in the land of Israel.
- And the third of the festivals, Shavuot, is about religion. God gave the Jewish people the 10 Commandments on this day, just seven weeks after leaving Egypt.
These three elements are critical to understanding the nature of of the the Jewish people. At the most fundamental level, any Jew is part of the Jewish people, whether or not they observe the commandments in the Bible or live in Israel. A religious Jew who lives in the diaspora or a secular Jew living in Israel appreciate two of the three aspects outlined in the Bible. And a Jew who lives in Israel and observes the Torah’s commandments covers all three elements.
Which brings us to why the Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot. Other than Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism who came to the holy land hundreds of years earlier, she is the only person in the Bible who takes upon all three elements upon herself.
Ruth told her mother-in-law Naomi (1:16-17):
וַתֹּ֤אמֶר רוּת֙ אַל־תִּפְגְּעִי־בִ֔י לְעָזְבֵ֖ךְ לָשׁ֣וּב מֵאַחֲרָ֑יִךְ כִּ֠י אֶל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֵּלְכִ֜י אֵלֵ֗ךְ וּבַאֲשֶׁ֤ר תָּלִ֙ינִי֙ אָלִ֔ין עַמֵּ֣ךְ עַמִּ֔י וֵאלֹהַ֖יִךְ אֱלֹהָֽי׃
But Ruth replied, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God
בַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר תָּמ֙וּתִי֙ אָמ֔וּת וְשָׁ֖ם אֶקָּבֵ֑ר כֹּה֩ יַעֲשֶׂ֨ה יְהוָ֥ה לִי֙ וְכֹ֣ה יֹסִ֔יף כִּ֣י הַמָּ֔וֶת יַפְרִ֖יד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֵֽךְ׃
Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the LORD do to me if anything but death parts me from you.”
Ruth accepts becoming part of the Jewish people, travels with Naomi back to Bethlehem in the Jewish holy land, and accepts the Jewish God. Ruth, more than any person in the Bible, represents the essence the three pillars of the Jewish Nation. It is for that reason that she was given the honor of being the great grandmother of King David, who united the Jewish people in a single kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital.
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