The festival of Shavuot, which begins this year on the evening of June 3 and ends the evening of June 5, commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai over 3,300 years ago.
On Shavuot we read the book of Ruth, containing the heart-wrenching dialogue between Ruth and Naomi.
The scene is set in the aftermath of the death of Naomi’s two sons, Machlon and Kilion. The family had been living in Moab, and the two brothers had married Moabite princesses, Orpah and Ruth. After the tragedies, Naomi feels that she belongs back at home in Israel. What about her daughters-in-law? Orpah chooses to remain in Moab, and Naomi then turns to Ruth:
And Naomi said, “Your sister-in-law has returned to her people and to her G-d; return after your sister-in-law.”
And Ruth said, “Do not entreat me to leave you, to return from following you, for wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your G-d my G-d.
“Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.
“So may G-d do to me and so may He continue, if anything but death separate me and you.”
And she saw that she was determined to go with her; so she stopped speaking to her.
The concerned mother-in-law suggests that Ruth stay with her people. After all, Ruth was the daughter of a Moabite king, and things would certainly be better for her in her native land than as a widow with her mother-in-law in foreign Israel. Her sister Orpah had chosen that route, and it seemed to make the most sense for Ruth as well.
But Ruth refuses, famously stating in no uncertain terms that her fate was linked with the Jewish G-d and His people.
As compelling as the plain meaning of the dialogue is, the Talmud uncovers an entire additional dimension:
Rabbi Elazar said: “What is meant by the verse ‘Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her?’”
Naomi said, “We Jews are prohibited from exiting the boundaries of Shabbat!” And Ruth replied, “Wherever you go, I will go.”
“We are prohibited from seclusion with a stranger,” and Ruth replied, “Wherever you lodge, I will lodge.”
“We are bound by 613 commandments!” “Your people shall be my people.”
“We are forbidden to worship idolatry!” “Your G-d is my G-d.”
“Our courts mete out four methods of capital punishment!” “Where you die, I will die.”
Here we are presented with an entirely different discussion, one that is very telling about the survival of Judaism.
Ruth was a seeker of truth, one who appreciates Judaism for what it really is. She traded a life of comfort, riches and security and took to the road with her unfortunate mother-in-law simply because she understood that it is with her and her religion that the truth lay.
What exactly did Ruth understand? Here the Talmud tells us that she appreciated every detail of Jewish law. Her mother-in-law saw her initial determination and courage to embrace Judaism, but Naomi wasn’t sure if Ruth really understood that Judaism has many details and laws that can at times make one’s head spin. Was Ruth really ready to embrace everything or just the parts she liked or felt personally attached to?
So Naomi put her to the test. She informed Ruth that Judaism has nice parts and seemingly ugly ones (capital punishment when needed). It has little details like yichud (the prohibition from being secluded with a stranger of a different gender) and large looming ones like idolatry. And if you want to truly join the fold, you must appreciate that every single detail is as precious and integral to the general edifice of Judaism as the other.
Ruth responded, “Yes, I understand all of the above, and I wish to embrace the faith of G-d with all its bells and whistles.” Then Naomi knew that Ruth was truly legitimate. And they went on their way, hand in hand to the Promised Land, ultimately leaving their mark on the future of the Jewish people.
What is the lesson we can take from their historic conversation?
Many people look at Judaism and see a vast sea of details, a veritable ocean of law, practice, ethics, philosophies and customs. They balk at the sheer magnitude of it and decide that it’s impossible that all of it is relevant today.
Ruth and her heartfelt words deliver us a timely message: If you want a real Judaism, a Judaism that will last and endure the test of time, it must be from A to Z.
The spirit is good, nice and even beautiful, but the law is crucial. The spirit without the law will eventually disintegrate and quickly lose its resemblance to the original.
So this Shavuot, take time out, eat delicious cheesecake, go to shul, listen to the Ten Commandments being read, and let us internalize Ruth’s message.
Rabbi Yossi Levertov is the spiritual leader of Chabad of Scottsdale and the director of the Jewish Learning Center.
For local Shavuot observances visit jewishaz.com.