I have a confession to make. Up until last year, if someone asked, “Quick: What’s the holiday of Shavuot about?” I wouldn’t have been able to answer.
As a child, I don’t remember celebrating Shavuot or even hearing much about it. Of course, it doesn’t help that so many Jewish holidays begin with a “Sh” or “S” sound: Shabbat, Simchat Torah, Shavuot, Sukkot, and the still-mysterious Shemini Atzeret. Among these, Simchat Torah, Shavuot and Shemini Atzeret have all gotten kind of jumbled in my head, and when someone brings one of them up, I always tend to have the same response: “Wait, which one is that again?”
Well, it’s a good thing that Shavuot doesn’t commemorate anything important.
Oh, wait: Shavuot celebrates the Jews receiving the Torah! Well, that’s kind of a big deal. And yet Shavuot is a holiday that has been overlooked not just by me, but by many American Jews.
That’s why this year, spiritual leader Sara Stock Mayo and I want to put Shavuot — and the gift of the Torah — front and center for our whole community. Building on the success of “Hadassah — A Persian Musical,” our sold-out communitywide Purim Shpiel seen by more than 1,045 people last year, we will be premiering our region’s first communitywide Shavuot Shpiel on May 3. Set to the music — but not the content — of the hit show “The Book of Mormon,” our new production tells the story of a lesser-known megillah associated with Shavuot, “The Book of Ruth.”
People often say that Ruth is read at Shavuot because her story takes place during the barley harvest. In learning more about it, however, I have come to believe that there is a much deeper reason that Ruth’s story is tied to Shavuot. On many levels, her story teaches us the importance of following the Torah’s commandments — and it warns us of the peril that comes when we turn our backs on Torah’s teachings.
The opening lines of Ruth offer a bare-bones introduction to Ruth and Naomi’s story.
“In the days when the chieftains ruled, there was a famine in the land; and a man of Bethlehem in Judah, with his wife and two sons, went to reside in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name was Naomi, and his two sons were named Mahlon and Chilion. … They came to the country of Moab and remained there.
“Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth, and they lived there about ten years. Then those two [sons] also died; so the woman was left without her two sons and without her husband.”
The backstory our rabbis offer to this minimal text is fascinating. According to the Midrash, Elimelech wasn’t just some “man.” Instead, “Elimelech was one of the great leaders of his district and one of the financial supporters of his generation. But when the years of famine came, he said, ‘Now all Israel will come knocking at my door, each one with his basket.’ He got up and fled from them.”
In other words, Elimelech had more than enough money and food to help his neighbors. If he had stayed in Judah, the Midrash tells us, he could have taken care of the whole country during the entire 10-year famine. Instead, Elimelech thought only of himself. He ran away from his Torah-mandated responsibilities and settled his family in Moab. In doing so, Elimelech picked a fitting location: Moab was considered the epitome of selfishness, because the Moabite men refused to share bread and water with the Israelites when they left Egypt.
The people of Judah were not blameless in all of this either. The rabbis tell us that the reason a famine hit Judah in the first place was because Israel had become materialistic and morally corrupt.
What follows in the Book of Ruth is truly a story for our present day. In the face of materialism and moral corruption both in Judah and Moab, two women — Naomi and Ruth — had a choice: They could immerse themselves in selfishness and lawlessness, or they could embrace the Torah’s ethical teachings. Fortunately, they chose the Torah. In doing so, they exemplified acts of loving-kindness — including loving one’s neighbor, welcoming the stranger and honoring one’s parents — that set Israel back on the path of righteousness.
Sara and I hope you join us for “The Book of Ruth” Shavuot Shpiel — featuring adults, teens, children and clergy from throughout our Jewish community — as we all celebrate the gift of the Torah together. We have a lot to celebrate. PJC
Elinor S. Nathanson is a creator of “The Book of Ruth,” which will be performed at the JCC Katz Theater on May 3 at 7 p.m. and May 6 at 3 p.m.