The Book of Ruth: A Zionist Story for Shavuot
The duality of Shavuot is undeniable — the yom tov exists, or rather co-exists, with distinctly different facets. On the one hand, there is its status as an agricultural festival marking the wheat/barley harvest and the related celebration of the precociousness of the Land of Israel; another aspect is its historic commemoration of the most remarkable event in the origin story of the Jewish people — the Revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Passover and Shavuot are connected by family ties — that is, Nachshon, a hero of the Seventh Day of Passover, and Ruth’s husband Boaz.
Nachshon who entered the Red Sea — as the ancient Midrash revealed, up to his nose — was the grandfather of Boaz and we remember the splitting of the sea on the Seventh Day of Passover holiday each year. It is passed down to us from ancient Jewish wisdom that the story of Ruth and Boaz is to be read aloud during the Shavuot services every year. Nachshon was also the brother-in-law of Moses’ brother Aaron, and Nachshon is mentioned by name in the Book of Ruth.
What is more, Passover and Shavuot are connected not only by, but through, Jerusalem.
Shavuot is one of the three pilgrimage holidays that is named in the Torah, where the Jewish people are directed to travel to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and offer sacrifices. And who built that Holy Temple? Boaz’s great-great-grandson, Solomon (Shlomo HaMelech). Solomon, the direct male descendant of Nachshon and the son of David.
In America, it is a true tragedy that the magnificence of Shavuot has degenerated for many into synagogue board member installations, cheesecake recipes, and confirmation graduations. But it is also a tragedy that the dual nature of the yom tov is unseen even by those who more traditionally observe Shavuot.
Of course, the night-long studying of Torah that many engage in is a good and a beautiful thing. But there is much more to Shavuot.
In order to properly internalize the full context of Shavuot, it is very instructive to take a close look at what made the men of Nachshon’s and Boaz’s family so distinctive.
The most distinguishing character trait of this family is the ability of their members to show complete disregard for their own individual well-being and step forward into the face of danger.
Judah (Yehuda), the son of Jacob (Yakov), stepped forward, when no one else would, and saved the life of his brother Joseph (Yosef) when his other brothers had murder in their hearts.
Nachshon stepped forward, when no one else would, and entered the Red Sea and demonstrated a genuine faith that we recall until today.
Boaz stepped forward, when no one else would, at great risk to his reputation and took responsibility for Ruth, a convert from Moab, when it was known that Jewish women were prohibited from marrying Moabite men.
David, while still a boy, stepped forward, when no one else would, and on the field of battle faced Goliath. David took the giant’s life with a single smooth stone from his sling.
And in the Book of Ruth we also find out how other members of this illustrious family who ran from their inclination to step forward suffered for it. Ploni Almoni, Boaz’s kinsman, who would not take responsibility for Ruth loses his place in Jewish history and we do not even know his name — Ploni Almoni being Biblical Hebrew jargon for “so and so.”
But Ruth’s first father-in-law, Elimelech, fares far worse than Ploni Almoni. When Elimelech left the Land of Israel for Moab, he was a community leader. When the times were rough, due to a drought, Elimelech took his wife, Naomi, and his sons and chose exile rather than stepping forward and providing our people with leadership. He was never to return to Israel. Elimelech and his sons died in Moab, and no future generations would come from their family line.
The lessons are clear. Those who are blessed with the necessary talent and fortitude to do what is necessary to help a fellow Jew, must heed the call. And also, the Land of Israel is precious and must be treasured. This is not just a Zionist belief, it’s a Jewish imperative. This is Shavuot. This is Judaism. This is Zionism.
When Herzl stepped forward and initiated the Zionist movement, he heard the call. When Jabotinsky stepped forward and proclaimed it was time to leave behind the character of the ghetto Jew and showed young Jews it was far better to take a stand, he heard the call. When the resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto stepped forward to battle the Nazis, they heard the call. When the soldiers of the various Zionist undergrounds and militias stepped forward to defend the newly born Jewish State in 1948, they heard the call. When the Refuseniks and the Jewish activists of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s stepped forward against the totalitarian Soviet Union, they heard the call. When Israeli intelligence operatives in the 1980s went into the heart of Africa and covertly evacuated Ethiopian Jewish refugees to Israel, they heard the call.
This is the love of a brother being responsible for a brother. This is beautiful and it is eternal. Let us be worthy of listening for today’s calls and step forward. This is what Shavuot demands of us. And the rewards are far sweeter than cheesecake.
Moshe Phillips is national director of Herut North America’s U.S. division. Herut is an international movement for Zionist pride and education and its U.S. website is https://herutna.org/