The prophet Samuel recorded the Book of Ruth. On Shavuot it is appropriate to read the Book of Ruth for two reasons: First, because Shavuot is a harvest festival and the Book of Ruth gives us a glimpse of the harvest season and how the poor were treated with sympathy and love. Second, because Shavuot is the anniversary of the passing of King David, who was the great-grandson of Ruth and Boaz, the protagonists of the story.
Shavuot is the anniversary of the “time of the giving of our Torah,” and when we received it, we pledged to accept the Torah and fulfill its 613 commandments.
Jews everywhere are proud of their unhesitating acceptance of the Torah and of its wonderful teachings. Despite all the impositions, restrictions, and responsibilities, Jews feel privileged to be a member of G‑d’s chosen people.
Ruth, a young Moabite widow, chooses to follow her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Bethlehem after the death of Naomi’s husband and two sons. Driven by love, loyalty, and devotion, Ruth converts to Judaism so she can follow her bereaved mother-in-law back to her country.
Once in Israel, Ruth’s social status rises quickly. Starting as a nokhriyah, a foreigner (Ruth 2:10), she next describes herself as a shif’hah, maidservant (Ruth 2:13), and then as an amah, handmaid (Ruth 3:9). By the end of the story, Boaz, her future husband, refers to her as an ishah, wife (Ruth 4:10), while the text hails her as the ancestress of King David (Ruth 4:17), an exalted member of the royal family.
Ruth’s acceptance of Judaism corresponds with the Giving of the Torah in the desert, while her loyalty symbolizes the love and acceptance to the Torah that is expected of all Jews.
The prophet, Shmuel, who wrote the book of Ruth, wished to stress that common people can do the right thing when they act unselfishly toward one another, as witnessed by Ruth’s actions. This echoes the ancient rabbis who said that the Book of Ruth was written to teach us a valuable lesson in gemilut hasadim, acts of loving-kindness.
Furthermore Ruth was no ordinary convert. Her name gives us a clue to her essence. In Hebrew, Ruth’s name is comprised of the letters reish, vav, tav, which add up to a numerical value of 606. As all human beings have an obligation to observe the seven Noachide commandments – so called because they were given after the flood – as did Ruth upon her birth as a Moabite. Add those seven commandments to the value of her name and you get 613, the total number of commandments in the Torah.
Ruth is a Torah seeker par excellence who is held up as a shining example of proper Torah acceptance. Our task is to emulate Ruth in our own acceptance of Torah and mitzvos, the Divine service that is the essence of Shavuot.
One of the 613 commandments in the Torah is the commandment to love God. This seems like an impossible commandment to fulfill. How can you love someone you don’t know? Furthermore, God is infinite and we are not. We have no comprehension of how He thinks, what His interests are, or the nature of His Divine attributes. How can we achieve this? Through our knowledge of Torah. God reveals Himself to us in His Torah. He tells us about His sense of justice and fairness, what His priorities are, His hopes and dreams for our future.
Our aim is to become familiar with God as a personality so that we can have a relationship with Him. We seek to love God and have Him love us in return.
Ruth the Moabite was looking for the missing 606 commandments. She did not do this solely because she was searching for truth and the right way to live – although doubtless these impulses were a part of her drive to convert – but so she could attach herself to God and cleave to Him, so she could connect to the source of all life.
The means to this end entailed attaching herself to a person who was already connected in this way to God. Thus she followed Naomi her mother-in-law rather than an abstract truth.
We read Ruth’s story on Shavuot to remind ourselves that this type of Torah acceptance is what we are seeking. We are not after God’s laws. We seek to attach ourselves to God Himself. May we all merit that closeness and love of Hashem through the holy Torah this Shavuot, just as our ancestors Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi did.