Parashat Shavuot/Naso: From exile to redemption

Parashat Shavuot/Naso: It seems Jewish future can only come out of Zion.

jews huddle at kotel 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
jews huddle at kotel 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Our calendar moves from the spring festivals Pessah and Shavuot, which take us from the desert to Israel, to the fall festivals, which conclude with universal redemption and plenty. And even in the spring, Pessah is linked by the counting of the Omer to Shavuot, seven weeks later; the Talmudic sages even refer to Shavuot as Atzeret, or the closing holiday (paralleling Shmini Atzeret, the Eighth Day which concludes the fall festival of Succot). And while Pessah only celebrates our promise of freedom, a journey from slave-labor and suffering to liberation in a hostile and homeless desert, Shavuot marks the festival of the first fruits brought by the Israelites who have not only reached their homeland but have established their Temple in Jerusalem! And it is women who symbolize the internal development of these two festivals. Remarkably enough, the holidays of this spring period are sandwiched between the public readings of two of our five biblical scrolls (megillot), each of which features a heroic woman: Purim is marked by the reading of the Scroll of Esther and Shavuot by the reading of the Scroll of Ruth. And just as Pessah moves from the description of a nation still smarting from slavery to the far more satisfying Shavuot realization of home and hearth, state and sanctuary, the Purim (pre-Pessah) Esther scroll centers on Jews in vulnerable galut (exile), and inexorably leads into the Shavuot scroll of Ruth, with its majestic reach for messianic geula (redemption). A study of the contrasts and comparisons between these two feminist scrolls will clearly elucidate the upward march of our calendrical journey, which clearly points us to Zion. First of all, the story of the Scroll of Esther takes place in Persia, and opens with an exquisitely detailed description of the dining hall of the Persian king in Shushan (Esther 1:6). The Scroll of Ruth, on the other hand, opens in Bethlehem - and although the rest of that chapter takes place in Moab, the succeeding three chapters happen in Bethlehem and Efrat. It is even fascinating to note that 10 years of life in Moab are described in that first chapter, whereas it takes the next three chapters to detail events in Israel of only three months' duration: from the beginning of the barley harvest to the end of the wheat harvest. These three months prepare the stage for Jewish eternity. Secondly, according to the Midrash (B.T. Megilla 11a), the Scroll of Esther describes Jews who have the opportunity to return to Judea but opt to remain in the "diaspora"; Ahasuerus was king of Persia immediately following Cyrus - who conquered Babylon and permitted the Jews exiled there to return to their homeland and rebuild their Temple. Esther even had her name changed from the Hebrew Hadassah to the more Persian Esther (probably from the Persian word for star, and the Persian goddess Astarte). In the Scroll of Ruth, however, the text makes fairly short shift of the sons of Elimelech, who leave Bethlehem (lit. House of Bread) for the glittering fields of Moab (lit. "from father," a reminder of the incest between Lot and his daughters); their names, Mahlon (illness) and Chilion (destruction) succinctly sum up their galut experience. The remaining three-quarters of the book tell of Naomi's return to her homeland, and of the triumph she eventually experiences there as the "ancestor" of David. The Scroll of Ruth describes Jews who leave exile for return to Israel. Thirdly, Esther tells the story of a Jewess in exile who is forced to forsake the home of her relative Mordecai and live with a gentile king in order to save her people; moreover, the salvation she achieves is only temporary, with the Talmud ruling that we don't even recite Hallel (songs of praise) on Purim since we remained slaves of Ahasuerus even after Haman's demise (B.T. Megilla 14). The Scroll of Ruth, on the other hand, tells the story of a gentile Moabite who becomes a Jewess-by-choice, journeys to Israel to live with her Jewish mother-in-law, and enters the royal family of Judah when she marries Boaz; moreover, she becomes the progenitrix of Jewish salvation through her great-grandson, David. Finally, the manner in which we celebrate Purim is by drinking until "we can no longer distinguish between praising Mordecai and cursing Haman," perhaps because it was the arch anti-Semite Amalekite Haman who forcibly reminded the assimilating Jews of Persia that they were after all Jews; nevertheless, such raucous celebration is certainly not identified with the way in which our sages generally ask us to celebrate. Shavuot, however, is celebrated by bringing first fruits to the Temple, singing praises to God and staying up all night studying Torah. It seems that true Jewish piety, the Jewish future and eternal Jewish salvation, can only come out of Zion. Apparently, even a celebration of galut survival must depend on the temporary "high" of inebriating beverages, whereas a festival of Jerusalem brings us to the supernal heights of our eternal Torah and a glimpse of Redemption. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.