Past Perfect: Acts of kindness

There is a long-standing tradition that connects the Book of Ruth with Shavuot.

Ruth and Boaz 248 88 (photo credit: )
Ruth and Boaz 248 88
(photo credit: )
There is a long-standing tradition that connects the Book of Ruth with Shavuot. Ruth is the book of Jewish kindness and compassion, especially toward those individuals who feel themselves weak and disadvantaged because of life and societal circumstances. This includes the widowed and the orphaned, the alien and the stranger, the poor and the otherwise hopeless. Ruth and Naomi, the heroines of the book and the mothers of Israel, are befriended and saved by Boaz, a man of stature and power, who risks a great deal in saving them from penury and abandonment. From this act of compassion and kindness sprouts eventual love, marriage and a child who will be one of the founders of the Davidic line of royalty of the kingdom of Judah and of all messianic hope and yearning. Judaism views all seemingly small things as being great and important in their own right, for no one can estimate or foretell the consequences of even the smallest act of courtesy to others. The rabbis give examples of "if only so and so knew the consequences of the small act of goodness that he performed," he would have acted with even greater fervor and intent to do greater good in performance of that act. In the Book of Ruth the "menu" of the lunch that Boaz gave Ruth to eat is recorded minutely. Had Boaz realized the cosmic and generational importance of this act of kindness of giving a defenseless widowed stranger food he would certainly have provided a more elaborate menu and fare. The rabbis of the Talmud taught us that goodness, courtesy, kindness, a compassionate "way of the land" precedes Torah. Thus Shavuot, marked as the commemoration of the granting of the Torah to Israel at Mount Sinai, is introduced to us through the Book of Ruth. The Torah is not only laws and commandments; it is a value system as well. To understand and appreciate the Torah, its value system must be discerned and appreciated first. Otherwise one runs the risk, in the words of Nahmanides, of being an obnoxious person and yet seemingly remaining within the limits of Torah law. The Book of Ruth, though written many centuries after the granting of the Torah, is really the preface to the Torah. The Jewish people begin with Abraham and Sarah, our father and mother, whose basic characteristic that allowed them to spread the message of monotheism in a pagan world was their kindness and hospitality toward others. The palace of Torah is entered through the garden of goodness. This goodness and concern for others has been the hallmark of the Jewish people throughout our existence. It has guaranteed that the Torah has remained with us and has forged the eternal link with Mount Sinai that Shavuot represents and commemorates. The rabbis of the Talmud again characterized Israel as being a compassionate and kind generous people. All of this is represented in the Book of Ruth and the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot has many meaningful traditions associated with it. However, lest we become lost in the dairy meals and all-night study sessions without realizing the true importance of this holiday of Torah, the Book of Ruth comes to place it all into proper perspective. The idea of the acceptance of Torah through kind and compassionate behavior toward others is basic to Judaism. The 19th-century Mussar movement attempted to make this idea widespread among the Jewish society of Lithuania and parts of Eastern Europe. It is worthy of support today, especially in a society that has become more and more self-centered. From 19th-century Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement to 21st-century life in our societies there is an enormous distance in time and attitude. But human problems remain constant as do our failures and shortcomings. The Torah attempts to raise our field of vision to see what can and should be noble in our lives and society. How to pursue this vision is through the actions that we exhibit toward others. The Torah emphasizes this message in myriad ways. The Book of Ruth is the perfect guide to this accomplishment. We should be aware that all of the characters that appear in the Book of Ruth still walk among us. Realizing this will make our acceptance of the Torah on Shavuot most meaningful and sincere. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.