The Story of Shavuot

The holiday brings us to understand that Torah is a language to communicate who we are and create new ways to envision both ourselves and the world around us.

Shavuot_521 (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Shavuot_521 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
HE SAID, “WHO ARE YOU?” She said, “I am Ruth your handmaid.
Spread your garment over your handmaid for you are a redeeming kinsman.” (Ruth 3:9) There are many ways we tell our stories to ourselves and each other. The Book of Ruth is read on the holiday in which we mark matan Torah, the receipt of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Yet not only does the Book of Ruth hold no legal significance, it conflicts with the law in Deuteronomy 23:4, which uncompromisingly states that the union between Boaz and Ruth is forbidden.
Why, then, do we read the story of Ruth on Shavuot? I suggest that we read the story of Ruth because it reveals the precise moment in which Boaz provides Ruth with the opportunity to tell her story. Ruth fashions a new life story for Boaz and for herself. Through this narrative, she creates an entirely new future for herself and for the Jewish people.
Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, has cautioned Ruth to do whatever Boaz tells her (Ruth 3:5). Yet, in that moment, when she is finally alone with Boaz, she tells him both who she is and who he can become. Ruth provides Boaz with an opportunity to see himself and his role in her life in a new light. He had not thought of himself as her redeemer.
The midrash Zutta (edited by Buber) tells us that “Boaz was 80 and Ruth 40 years old, but their marriage did not remain childless, though Boaz died the day after his wedding.” If Boaz was at an age where he did not expect to remarry, his response to Ruth’s declaration that he is a redeemer is, “Blessed are you to the Lord, daughter. Your last act of kindness surpasses the first, in that you have not turned to younger men whether rich or poor.”(Ruth 3:10) This is not the passionate response of a young man; it is the response of an old man provided with the surprising opportunity to regenerate himself. The daring narrative structure that Ruth has created provides them both with the ability to change and become entirely new.
This same midrash also tells us that after Ruth and Boaz marry and she becomes pregnant, he passes away. The Book of Ruth suggests that when a character is given a chance to see his life through a new lens, there is a regenerative power and a healing possibility.
Similarly, Ruth refashions Naomi’s narrative. Through Ruth, Naomi moves from being an embittered woman (she asks the women of Bethlehem to call her Mara, meaning bitter) to being a vehicle for others to praise God at the birth of a son to Ruth and Boaz.
This moment when Ruth suggests to Boaz the person he is capable of becoming, and the changes she brings to Naomi’s life, speak to us about the regenerative power of Torah. The purpose of the Book of Ruth is to move the reader from one mode of seeing the world into another one entirely.
THIS DIFFERENT MODE OF SEEING THE WORLD IS EVIdent in the liaison between Ruth and Boaz. She is a Moabite, prohibited by Deuteronomy 23:4 from marrying into the Israelite community. Why is their union sanctioned? Perhaps the answer is in the literal wording: although a Moabite cannot marry into the Israelite community, a “Moabitess,” that is, a woman, can. Yet there is a deeper, more important message here. Perhaps Ruth is not to be seen as a Moabite at all, but rather as the prototypical, ideal Jew filled with kindness and the ability to bring regeneration to the other. Unlike any other Biblical character, Ruth has the ability to elicit new versions of life stories.
The book of Ruth thus displays the power of retelling a story, creating the ability to reenvision a troubled past. According to Bava Batra 91a, Boaz had had 60 children, but they all died during his lifetime. Yet, by the scroll’s end, Ruth and Boaz are no longer tragic figures, widow and widower, bereaved parents beyond their child-bearing years. Together, Ruth and Boaz become the founders of the Davidic dynasty.
Their descendant, David, is known for his song and for being able to repent, to do teshuva. The midrash Sohar Tov says, “Who caused David to inherit the world to come? The mouth that said hatati (I have sinned).” (II Sam 12:13) David, too, is able to use language in a redemptive way and to become different. Like his great-grandparents, David is able to create a new narrative for himself. Ruth changes the course of history by telling Boaz that he is a redeemer; David changes the world by admitting his failings.
The holiday of Shavuot brings us to understand that Torah is a language to communicate who we are and create new ways to envision both ourselves and the world around us.
• Beth Kissileff, a writer and teacher of Jewish and literary texts, is editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis.