Background on Shavuot: The Spring Harvest Festival
The end of the Spring Quarter coincides with one of the most significant holidays in Jewish tradition: Shavuot. Shavuot celebrates the spring harvest festival and marks the acceptance of the Torah–the Jewish Book of Law–on Mount Sinai over three millennia ago.
This holiday centers around many deep-rooted Jewish customs, such as all-night learning, Tikkun Leil Shavuot. This kabbalistic tradition aims to correct the faults of our ancestors, who were unprepared to receive the Torah, by demonstrating that we are eager and ready to accept the word of G-d. While this practice takes on popular themes in Jewish tradition like memory and absolution–or perhaps “Jewish guilt” is a more fitting description–Shavuot would not be a Jewish holiday without special gastronomic observances.
To uphold this festival, many Jews eat dairy-filled foods, such as cheesecake and blintzes. While the origins of the tradition are disputed, many believe that it reflects the innocence of the Israelites before coming onto the laws of G-d, as consuming milk likens the Israelites to babies. Another explanation accounts for the fact that upon receiving the Torah, the Israelites were at once subject to its laws, including the Jewish dietary laws of Kashrut. Kashrut demands time-consuming meat preparation, making the Israelites turn to dairy as their celebratory meal.
The Book of Ruth and its Message on Jewish Ethics
On Shavuot, Jews follow another age-old tradition: reciting The Book of Ruth. The Book of Ruth is a biblical tale that follows the Moabite Ruth and her unconditional devotion to her widowed Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, Naomi’s people, and Naomi’s G-d. This story pairs nicely with Shavuot, as it takes place during the spring barley harvest and highlights one woman’s unconditional acceptance of the G-d of Israel, and thus his word, the Torah.
The story demonstrates many Jewish morals such as Gemilut Hesed, “loving-kindness”, and delves into relevant topics of conversion, immigration, and acceptance of the other.
After their husbands’ deaths, Ruth renounces her life in Moab to follow Naomi to her homeland of Israel. Despite Naomi’s insistence for Ruth to stay in Moab and rebuild her life, Ruth selflessly declares, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God,” the ultimate manifesto of love and devotion. Ruth, a young, beautiful, and able woman is willing to sacrifice a potential life and family in Moab in order to accompany and support her aging, husbandless mother-in-law–a true testimony to Gemilut Hesed.
Her strong will, generosity toward Naomi, and undying faith in the G-d of Israel inspire great reward. Soon after immigrating to the Land of Israel Ruth is taken in as wife by a wealthy, well-respected Israelite man, Boaz.
Upon legalizing the marriage between Ruth and Boaz, the elders of Israel bless Ruth: “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the family of Israel.” Ruth, a woman from not only a foreign land but an enemy nation (Jewish texts describe the conflict between Moab and the Israelites), is accepted into the Jewish nation with the highest regard: a blessing for her to be like Rachel and Leah, matriarchs of the Jewish nation. These words become a reality–Ruth–an immigrant, a convert, an “other”– becomes an integral part of the Jewish nation and births the forebear of a great Jewish Kingdom.
The Book of Ruth is a revolutionary biblical story on many accounts. Firstly, it centers around a female protagonist and highlights the bond between two women. Secondly, it teaches Jewish acceptance of the other. Rather than judging Ruth for her background, she is welcomed into the Jewish community for who she is. Her role in Jewish history, as the great-grandmother of King David, who established the Judean Dynasty and from whom the Messiah will redeem the world, exemplifies the products of love and acceptance. It is our job as individuals to not only embody Ruth’s courage, trust, and kindness but to accept people for who they are, not from where they have come.
In a world where xenophobia, statelessness, and immigration are pandemic, The Book of Ruth is a gentle reminder to welcome in “others”. Perhaps their contributions to society will mirror those of Ruth.
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