Shavuot, Ruth, and Reaping Loving-Kindness
On Shavuot we read Megillat Rut – the Book of Ruth. Strong connections exist between Ruth’s story and this holiday. Harvest imagery is prevalent in the Book of Ruth, with crucial scenes taking place on Boaz’s fields and threshing floor. This resonates with Shavuot’s status as an agricultural festival; in the time of the Temple, pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem to perform the mitzvah of bikurim, or offering their first fruits. Another tie between Ruth and Shavuot lies in the figure of King David. Ruth and Boaz conceived Oved, the grandfather of King David, who is believed to have died on Shavuot.
Let’s explore another rich connection between Shavuot and the figure of Ruth: the idea of chesed, or loving-kindness. R. Ze’era declares in Ruth Rabbah 2:14, “The Scroll of Ruth tells us nothing of the laws of cleanness or uncleanness, of what is prohibited or what is permitted. Why then was it written? To teach you how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness.” In other words, the very purpose of the Book of Ruth is to convey the importance of kindness, rather than teach intricacies of halacha. Two excerpts from Ruth will help examine who are the agents of kindness in this story. The first scene takes place when Ruth returns to her mother-in-law Naomi after a successful day of gleaning. The second scene takes place when Ruth approaches Boaz on his threshing floor.
Scene One: Ruth 2:17-21
17. She gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned – it was about an ephah of barley –
18. and carried it back with her to the town. When her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned, and when she also took out and gave her what she had left over after eating her fill,
19. her mother-in-law asked her, “Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be he who took such generous notice of you!” So she told her mother-in-law whom she had worked with, saying, “The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.”
20. Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he of the Lord, who has not failed in His kindness to the living or to the dead! For,” Naomi explained to her daughter-in-law, “the man is related to us; he is one of our redeeming kinsmen.”
21. Ruth the Moabite said, “He even told me, ‘Stay close by my workers until all my harvest is finished.'”
Your Ruth Navigator
1. What prompts Naomi’s initial excitement in this scene?
2. What piece of information provides further proof of God’s kindness to Ruth and Naomi?
3. How does Ruth corroborate this opinion?
4. Who are the different agents of loving-kindness here, and who are the recipients of their kindness?
Scene Two: Ruth 3:8-11
8. In the middle of the night, the man gave a start and pulled back – there was a woman lying at his feet!
9. “Who are you?” he asked. And she replied, “I am your handmaid Ruth. Spread your robe over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman.”
10. He exclaimed, “Be blessed of the Lord, daughter! Your latest deed of kindness is greater than the first, in that you have not turned to younger men, whether poor or rich.
11. And now, daughter, have no fear. I will do in your behalf whatever you ask…”
Your Ruth Navigator Again
1. Who is now showing whom kindness?
2. To what could Boaz be referring when he mentions Ruth’s “first” kindness? Why would her attempt to marry Boaz be kinder than any previous demonstrations of this quality?
3. Find the phrase in Boaz’s statement that matches a phrase from Naomi’s statement in Chapter 2. What does this say about the way in which both of these people view human acts of kindness?
In the first scene, Naomi views God’s kindness as two-fold. First, He has enabled Ruth to bring back a large quantity of food from the fields. On the level of physical human needs, God has indeed been generous, as has Boaz by extension. In addition, God has also given Ruth the chance to meet a potential second husband. Boaz’s status as a close relative of Mahlon, Ruth’s first husband-though not the closest kinsman, as the text will show-means he could quite possibly take Ruth as his wife and perpetuate Mahlon’s name on his estate. (See Leviticus 25:24-28 for laws of redeeming the land.)
The scene on the threshing floor contains several levels of kindness. Ruth offers herself to a man much older than she, a fact duly noted by Boaz when he says “you have not turned to younger men.” Ruth’s act is also a kindness to Naomi because marrying Boaz would ensure that the name of Mahlon, Naomi’s son, will live on. Boaz himself expresses unconditional loving-kindness to the Moabite woman when he tells her, “I will do in your behalf whatever you ask.” This scene demonstrates that an act of kindness can ripple out from a two-person interaction and envelop an entire family or a community in its warmth.
What does loving-kindness have to do with Shavuot’s status as the day marking the giving of the Torah? The Book of Ruth is saturated with instances of both God and human beings treating each other with chesed – taking extra steps to ensure the comfort and well-being of others. So, too, the entire Torah is a text conveying the importance of treating others with kindness and love. In the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a, R. Simlai explains that the Torah has as bookends acts of loving-kindness: “Torah-there is a deed of loving-kindness at its beginning and a deed of loving-kindness at its end.” As a microcosm of the type of behavior that literally frames our Torah, Ruth’s story is entirely appropriate for reading on Shavuot, the day celebrating that gift from God.
A Final Thought
This discussion can be brought full circle with a text from the prophet Hoseah: “Sow for yourselves according to charity, but reap according to your loving-kindness” (Hoseah 10:12).
Shavuot is a holiday originally linked to the agricultural rhythms of sowing and reaping. Today we no longer trek to the Temple to offer the first fruits of our harvest; many of us have no regular interaction with the earth. By treating those around us with loving-kindness, we can plant and nourish positive relationships. The fruits we reap will be bountiful: a world based on treating others with dignity, respect, kindness, and love. This Shavuot we can be reminded that reaping can take place in our time; that we, too, can harvest the first fruits of our kind interactions and offer them to God.
By Hannah Graham, Iyyun Fellow, Hillel International Center.