Seven weeks after Passover…and you can count ’em precisely on your own fingers….comes the holiday of Shavuot…which means “Weeks” in Hebrew which comes from the Hebrew word shevah which just happens to mean seven…getting the picture here? Seven is a magic number. It happens to be a prime number as well, but that’s another story. In this story, we’re talking about counting seven days of seven weeks for a total of 49 days of the counting of the Omer, the measure of barley brought to the Temple in Jerusalem each day between the two holidays. It’s a harvest thing. And on the 49th day, we observe the moment we stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai and received the Torah…the Law.
I rather like Shavuot. It’s a gentle holiday, it kinda comes with the start of summer and there’s always a picnic on the lawn after shul lets out. When the kids were little, I always had a hamper full of enough good stuff to feed any and all comers. Cousin Bud used always come for a bagel and lox. The rabbi always stopped for a bit of creamed herring (my personal secret recipe) on a Trisket. And cheesecake. Lots of cheesecake. There was t-ball, soccer, and softball. Volleyball sometimes, gaga always, and lots of good old fashioned running amok.
There’s also a tradition that comes down to use from the Kabbalists of the 16th century…the Tikkun Leil Shavuot. People stay up to study all night long. In our shul, people teach on different topics throughout the night. I’ve taught at several and it’s just an amazing thing to do. It never hurts to learn a little bit more.
Shavuot is also the holiday when we read the Book of Ruth. This is a terrific story, and just one more case where the book is sooooo much better than the movie. It’s not very long, but right now, it’s pretty timely. The juxtaposition of receiving Torah and reading Ruth used to baffle me. Not so much any more. I see the books as necessary complements. Torah, with its 613 positive commandments gives us more than just law. It gives us a calendar, that thing which turns a ragtag group of people into a community. Reading Ruth on the same day we mark receiving Torah is a confirmation that we are more than just a bunch of laws. We are a living, breathing people who pay attention to not just the law, but to the cycles of our lives…the calendar, the life cycle, the agricultural cycle…. But back to the Book of Ruth.
The books begins with the end of Naomi’s time as an immigrant in Moab with her husband and sons. Her sons married Moabite women. All three men have died, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law with no way to earn a living. Naomi decides it’s time for her to return to her own country.
The daughters-in-law want to follow, but Naomi tries to send them back to their families, telling the younger women to find new husbands and live a fulfilled life. Orpah goes, but Ruth refuses, and utters those oh, so famous words:
Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back from following you. Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your G-d, my G-d. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.
And so they head to Bethlehem. Naomi could return legally, but Ruth, a Moabite, was not exactly welcome in Judah since the countries were usually at war.
In order to survive, Naomi sends Ruth to glean in the fields of her kinsman Boaz. Under Jewish law, the farmer must not cut the corners of his field, nor may he pick up any sheafs that have fallen. Those are left for the poor, the ones who need public assistance. In the scheme of things, her decision may not seem like much, but the world changes because of it. Ruth eventually marries Boaz because of the Levirate law that requires a kinsman to marry a widow. Boaz and Ruth have a son, Perez. Perez has a son, Jesse. And Jesse has a son…..David. Yes, that David.
The one who would become King David was the great grandson of Ruth, a poor, illegal alien.
Ruth is the embodiment of why we have laws. It should be no surprise that we read her story on a holiday that celebrates the law and the harvest. Nope. No surprise at all.
Naomi and Ruth probably would’ve liked the picnic part. Especially the kids running amok on the lawn. Moms and grandmas like that sort of thing.
The Wifely Person’ Tip o’the Week
A calendar is more than a place to mark birthdays and anniversaries;
it’s a good place to chronicle the comings of your life