Shavuot, despite its official status as a “first-tier” biblical festival, often gets short shrift among the holidays.
For one thing, unlike Passover, Succot or Hanukka, Shavuot (in Israel) lasts for only one day, hardly enough time to get into the “Shavuot mode.” It has no iconic, outstanding symbol – like the shofar, matza or hanukkia – to represent it in the public consciousness.
And it sometimes seems to be treated as an “add-on” to Passover, as evidenced by the strange fact that no specific date for Shavuot appears in the Torah; we are told only that it occurs at the conclusion of the counting of the Omer period that began on Passover.
Yet Shavuot decidedly does have a persona of its own. It commemorates the most cataclysmic moment in our history – the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai – and so we reread the account of the Ten Commandments during the prayer service, and by tradition stay awake deep into the night studying various books of the Tanach or Talmud.
Shavuot even merits its own culinary qualification, the custom being to eat at least one dairy meal during the holiday.
On a more personal level, the day of Shavuot revolves around two fascinating individuals who have come to epitomize the model of the Righteous Convert: Jethro and Ruth. The narrative of the Revelation at Sinai is found in the Torah portion named for Jethro (Yitro); and the Book of Ruth is read in its entirety in the course of the day. Not by coincidence, the names Jethro and Ruth share the same root (no pun intended!) letters of resh-vav-tav, and they both serve to affirm the precept that Judaism is not a racial designation; anyone – even a priest of Midian or a princess of Moab – can join the ranks of our religion at the highest level.
BUT DESPITE their similarities to one another, there is a significant, qualitative difference between the two. For while Jethro makes a brief, dramatic appearance on the stage of history and then disappears forever, with only the faintest trace of his lineage recorded, Ruth creates a lasting legacy that carries on through the millennia, up to and including the Davidic dynasty and the “grand finale” of Jewish life, the advent of the Messiah.
And while Ruth became a popular name among our people, when is the last – or first! – time you heard of a Jewish boy named Yitro, or Jethro? I suggest that the divergence of Jethro and Ruth occurs for two reasons.
The first is the path that each of these converts takes as they come closer to the One God. Jethro is unquestionably a most impressive individual: Adviser to Pharaoh and spiritual leader of Midian, he is immensely wealthy and eminently wise. According to the rabbis, he comes to Judaism (for lack of a better term) only after having sampled virtually all the other religions then extant in the world.
He concludes that Moses’s God surpasses all the others: “Now I know that this God is greater,” he proclaims to his illustrious son-in-law. He joins the nation at its zenith, after Israel has humbled Pharaoh, departed Egypt and defeated Amalek, and after the momentous miracle of the Splitting of the Sea. He joins us, if you will, from the top down.
Not so Ruth. Related to the nobility of Moab, she gives all of that up to join her mother-in-law, Naomi, embracing the faith after several attempts by Naomi to dissuade her. Naomi warns Ruth that it is not always easy to be a Jew, and that we are governed by a strict code of law that sublimates our own wants and desires to the will of the Almighty. Furthermore, Naomi tells her that Jews are not always universally loved (so what else is new?). Ruth responds with her epic pledge, among the classics of biblical poetry: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I shall lodge. Your people are my people, your God is my God; where you die, I, too, shall be buried.” Ruth then submits herself to the most humbling of pursuits, gleaning in the fields for her subsistence among the indigent of the land.
Unlike Jethro, Ruth arrives at Judaism from the ground up. Paying the steepest of dues, with no illusions as to the hardships that Judaism may present, she achieves a staying power and commitment to God that will not be easily dislodged.
THERE IS another major factor at work as well, one that is even more instrumental in their respective fates: the centrality of Israel.
As the Children of Israel begin their journey to the Holy Land, Moses pleads with his father-in-law to join them: “Go with us,” he urges, “we shall treat you well, for God has spoken of good for Israel. Please, do not forsake us! If you come with us, then all the goodness which God does for us, He will do for you, too” (Numbers 10:29-32).
But Jethro is seemingly unmoved. In just a few concise words, he voices the classic arguments used throughout the centuries against aliya: “I shall not join you; rather to my land and my family I shall go.” Jethro mentions the three primary reasons for staying in the Diaspora: His wealth – in this case, his real estate holdings in Moab; his familiarity with the land of his birth; and his family “back in the old country,” from which he would have to be separated.
Moses repeats his plea, and no more is heard on the subject, yet it remains an open question among the commentators as to whether Jethro accompanied the nation to Israel or departed for Midian. I strongly believe that the latter is the case.
Ruth, however, leaves no doubt that she embraces Israel no less than the Torah.
Indeed, her living off the produce of the field is a metaphor for her attachment to the land. And precisely because she casts her lot with her now-fellow Jews in Israel, she achieves eternity. She will again revert to her royal bearing, producing kings and princes in the centuries to follow.
As the conversion crisis rages on, perhaps greater today than in many previous generations, the lessons of Ruth and Jethro should not be lost on us. Now, as then, there is a ferocious debate over who qualifies as a “Jew of choice,” and what exactly are the conditions for membership in the Tribe. Certainly the allowance of “conversion by correspondence,” or the simple passing of a “Judaism 101” course, makes more for comedy than for commitment, especially when unaccompanied by ritual circumcision and immersion in a mikve.
But for those who cast their lot with the people of Israel in the Land of Israel, in particular those who are prepared to fight and possibly die for this country, every possible effort must be made to educate, embrace and encourage these people. Had we rejected Ruth – whose Moabite background was suspicious in the extreme – we might never have produced a King David, or his descendant, the Messiah. As much courage as it took for Ruth to join us, it took equal courage for us to accept her – and all the potential Ruths in our midst. ■ The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. www.rabbistewartweiss.com.