The House That Ruth Built
Shavuot, the holiday that marks God’s giving of the Torah to the Jewish people, is punctuated at many synagogues by studying religious texts throughout the night and by the reading of the Book of Ruth on the second day of the holiday.
The standard view is that these practices serve to recall and re-enact the revelation at Mount Sinai: Just as the Israelites of that generation accepted the Torah — and just as, centuries later, Ruth the Moabite would famously convert to Judaism — we, too, are embracing the commandments given to Moses.
Central to this interpretation of Ruth as the paradigm of conversion is her famous declaration to her mother-in-law, Naomi: “For wherever you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people; and your God is my God; where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.”
Without question, the passage is one of the most moving in the Bible, and resonates with the theme of accepting the Torah. Yet the tendency to focus so heavily on this verse obscures the full scope of Ruth’s heroism and the story’s deeper narrative — and, in the process, denies us a richer understanding of the connection between the two highlights of the Shavuot holiday.
As my own rabbi, Ari Berman of the Jewish Center of Manhattan, is fond of pointing out, the real force propelling the story is Ruth’s kindness for both the living and the dead, which manifests itself in her commitment to the ancient practice of Levirate marriage, the requirement that a kinsman marry the widow of a fatherless man in order to redeem his family name and property.
The story begins with the deaths of Naomi’s husband and of her two sons (presumably a punishment for their decision to abandon the Land of Israel for the fields of Moab), and from then on, the suspense revolves around the question of whether Ruth will carry out the tradition of marrying within the family of her late husband. Only after she marries her late husband’s cousin, Boaz, and the two bear a child — Obed, the grandfather of King David, and progenitor of the messiah — can the story end, with Naomi satisfied that her late husband has been redeemed.
“And the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be God who has not left you without a redeemer today! May his name be famous in Israel. He will become your life-restorer, and sustain your old age, for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, has borne him, and she is better to you than seven sons.”
Ruth is the hero of the story because she rescues an entire bloodline from oblivion, not simply because of her personal acceptance of Judaism and her devotion to her mother-in-law. Similarly, the tradition of studying Torah late into the first night of Shavuot should be understood as more than just the re-enactment of the Jewish people’s acceptance of the revelation at Sinai.
When we study all night on Shavuot, it is like Ruth taking part in the Levirate marriage: We are redeeming the lost generation that received the Torah at Sinai but fumbled away its inheritance, eventually losing the right to enter the Promised Land. If not for our renewed commitment to the Torah each year — our willingness to essentially take on the role of Ruth — the collective memory and legacy of the Israelites in the desert would be lost and forgotten.
Ami Eden is executive editor of the Forward newspaper and editor of its Web site.