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From Sinai to Ruth: Why We Read Megillat Ruth on Shavuot Israel Standing Before God

Rabbi Hagit Dotan
| 11/05/2013
Conversion and Circumcision
Women & Gender

I would like to thank all who heard, responded, and helped me formulate this article: the Tehuda Seminary: Sara Leibovitz and Sharon Melammed; the Shreibom Bet Midrash; Or Margalit and the Ma’ayan Bet Midrash in Modi’in, to Ra’anan Dotan, to the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and Dr. Einat Ramon, who inspired me to write this article.

How we wish we could go back in time and stand at Sinai – to experience those three days of excited preparation, the sounds and the lightening, the heavy cloud, the loud blow of the shofar, the smoking mountain, God in the descending fire, Moses and God speaking to one another. If we could only, even for a brief moment, hear the voice of God, Master of the Universe, our Father, speaking to us to say: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt from the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 22).  We yearn to merit the experience of receiving the Torah at Sinai directly from God: “Not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. The Holy One, blessed be He, did it in His glory by Himself!” (Pesach Haggadah).

Instead we have only a midrash to remind us that all of us – throughout past and future history – were present, “and not you alone, but even future generations were there at that time.” (Midrash Tanhuma to the Portion of Nitzavim, 3). Is this sufficient? What does it help us that we are all considered to have been at Sinai?

If we all stood at the mountain, saw the sounds, stood to receive the Torah from the Almighty, all said as one, “we shall do and we shall listen” (Exodus 19:8). – then it follows that the statements “God held the mountain over our heads like a bucket” (Shabbat 88a). and “You are an impetuous nation, putting your mouths before your ears” (Ibid). apply to us as well; and we are all compared to a raped woman, (Tiferet Yisrael, Maharal of Prague, Chapter 32. He explains the comparison: a rapist is obligated to marry the woman he raped and he may never divorce her. So is God’s bond with, and responsibility towards, Israel permanent). having been forced to receive the Torah.

A people of slaves in the desert, thirsting for protection, a different master, identity, freedom, love – of course we were eager to accept the Torah, from God of the universe who chose us from all peoples, and sanctified us of all nations. We are His children whom He protects and He is our Father and Master. We belong to Him, for He is Great and Glorious, All-Powerful and Lofty.

But what happened to us immediately after He revealed Himself to us? How could it be, after we stood there and He spoke to us, that as soon as He disappeared we worshipped the golden calf, calling it God of Israel? (Exodus 32:4). How was it possible that we could not manage to wait, to be without mother and father, to tolerate the idea that perhaps we were alone?  Is Sinai feasible for a nation of slaves? Are those so newly liberated capable of standing at the mountain?

Behold the festival of the Giving of the Torah, upon us it arrives each year anew. We may find ourselves each year standing at the mountain, seeing the sounds, hearing the voice of God, only to immediately afterwards, when the holiday is over, revert to worshiping the calf. What will prevent us from repeatedly traversing this destructive route from mountain to calf?

From anticipation to disappointment?

From hope to despair?

From following the path to losing the path?

The answer is found in the Book of Ruth, which for a variety of reasons was chosen to be read on Shavuot. (Shavuot is the Festival of Reaping (Exodus 23:16) and the story of Ruth takes place largely in the fields at harvest time; it is the Festival of the Giving of the Torah, according to the Talmud (Tractate Yoma 4:2) – Sinai resembles a mass conversion, and Ruth was a convert; and finally, there is a tradition according to which King David, descendant of Ruth, was born and died on Shavuot). All those reasons, including those that compare Ruth’s acceptance of the God of Israel to the conversion process, are not enough to prevent the fall from the mountain to the calf.

If we examine in depth the two scenes – Israel standing at Sinai and Ruth standing before Naomi – we can perhaps arrive at the answer. At Sinai we were a nation of slaves, newly released from Egypt, inferior in all aspects, meeting the true, Omnipotent Ruler of the world in the heart of the desert (from which there was no way back). The chasm between the standing of a slave and that of the All-Powerful God inherently creates an “enforcing” situation, for the mountain is suspended over our heads. For who will not say ‘Amen’ when the Almighty speaks, or even before He speaks? When we face the All-Powerful, the All-Controlling, do we not lose some of our own power? The chasm between us renders us unable to maintain faith and belief!

If we understand thus our position at Sinai, it becomes obvious that not faith and belief, but fear and awe, hope and uncertainty, made “we shall do and we shall listen” the logical response. (When we face the boss, the commander, the one who has greater power, or the one on whom our life or our livelihood depends, do we not fulfill all of his demands? Even promise beyond our capabilities? The State of Israel is in a similar position when it loses its way as it faces the nations of the world).

Ruth Stands Before Naomi, Israel Stands Before God

There is a similarity between Ruth and Israel: both are destitute, in the desert, searching for a guardian, walking towards the unknown. Yet there are also differences – Israel stood as a nation; had no choice and no way back; and wanted God to fulfill His promise and provide. Ruth was an individual; she had a choice and could have returned, as Orpah did; she went with no expectations of honor or plenty, to an unknown fate.

The comparison between Naomi and God is more difficult; there can be no similarity between Omnipotence and human frailty. Naomi has nothing to offer Ruth (At this point in the story it appears thus. Later, it is clear that Naomi had what to give, but Ruth was unaware of this when she chose to follow Naomi, no matter what fate awaited her). – not food, protection, custody or identity – only love. As she states herself, “Call me not Naomi, call me Marah; for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD hath brought me back home empty…”  (Ruth 1:20-21). The feeling of emptiness expressed here is immense. What can an empty person possibly offer? Yet Ruth clings to Naomi:

And Ruth said: ‘Entreat me not to leave you, and to return from following you; for whither you go, I will go;

and where you lodge, I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,

and your God my God;

where you die, will I die,

and there will I be buried;

the LORD do so to me, and more also,

if aught but death part you and me.’

And when she saw that she was determined to go with her, she left off speaking unto her. (Ruth 1:16-18).

Why is Ruth determined? Why does she choose to remain specifically with Naomi? Here lies the unstated reason for reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, and the solution towards avoiding a return to the Golden Calf.

The rabbis who attached Megillat Ruth to the festival of our receiving the Torah attempted, in their unique fashion, to imply something about our relationship with God. They are trying to tell us:

You, who yearn so to be present at Sinai – to witness such an impressive event, notwithstanding the problematic gulf between the sides – you were there, you and all your descendants. We all begin at that point, but let us not become affixed there, for then we shall be on the path towards the calf. You must conquer the overwhelming desire to be at Sinai above all else. You were already there – now you must progress onward, until you reach the level of Ruth and Naomi, where the gap between the sides no longer exists. Like Ruth, you have a choice, you can turn your back on God (and man) and seek a comfortable life. Precisely here, where God (and man) seem to have nothing to offer you, and you may expect nothing from them. If you succeed at the stage of Ruth and Naomi, and face God and your fellow man, without expectations or demanding something in return – then you will understand the meaning of belief  (He who succeeds at this perhaps will learn in time what the other side has to offer, as became clear with Ruth and Naomi). You will know what it means to worship God. You will not follow the calf, nor will you get stuck dreaming about Sinai. You will attain redemption.  (Sinai affects the entire nation; Ruth and Naomi was a personal encounter that affected an individual’s awareness. Thus the Shavuot experience each year for us must be a personal, internal journey, accomplished not by the nation but by the individual – and the collection of these individuals forms the nation).

By connecting the Book of Ruth to the festival of receiving the Torah, our Rabbis show us the path towards redemption. They rely upon us to be able to traverse the entire way from Sinai to Ruth and Naomi, to not turn our backs and leave but to remain and have faith. This is perhaps where redemption begins. This explains why Ruth is the mother of royalty and the antecedent of Mashiah ben David.

He used to say: Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of
receiving a reward; instead be like servants who serve their master not for
the sake of receiving a reward. And let the awe of Heaven be upon you.

Mishna Avot, Chapter 1:3

Hagit Dotan was ordained in Jerusalem in 2013 by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and has established a Bet Midrash in Modi’in where she has been teaching for the past 3 years. Interested in discussing ideas that the author has presented?  Go to The Schechter Institutes Facebook page where you’ll find Rabbi Dotan’s article. She looks forward to your comments.

English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.

Image: “Matan Torah” from Sefer Minhagim, author unknown, 1723, woodcut. Courtesy of the TALI Education Fund website, Visual Midrash, a digitalized collection of artwork on biblical and Judaic subjects.

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