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Torah Attitude: Shavuous: The Story of Ruth and the giving of the Torah
The main lesson we learn from the Book of Ruth is that the righteous will be rewarded for doing acts of lovingkindness. We read the Book of Ruth on Shavuous since this Book mainly deals with lovingkindness, just as the Torah mainly contains lessons of lovingkindness. The Torah records 248 positive commandments and 365 negative commandments that do not seem to fit under one headline of "laws of lovingkindness". Under normal circumstances a convert seeking to become a member of the Jewish nation will be discouraged to do so. Hillel said to this potential convert, "What you dislike do not do to somebody else. This is the essence of the whole Torah. The rest are explanations. Go and learn it." If we analyze the words of Hillel, we find that he really expressed in negative terms what the Torah teaches and commands us: "And you shall love your fellow being as yourself." What both Hillel and Rabbi Akiva teach us is, that we must develop a relationship with G'd Himself that is also based on this fundamental rule. Rabbi Lopian points out that the seven weeks leading up to the day when we receive the Torah, are weeks where we have to prepare ourselves to be ready to accept the Torah. "Where there is no flour [sustenance] there is no Torah." G'd rewarded Ruth to become the mother of the royal dynasty of King David. The future king of the Jewish people, the Mashiach, will also be a worthy descendant of this great woman.
Book of Ruth
On the Festival of Shavuous we read the Book of Ruth. Our sages wonder what the purpose of this Book is. We know that our Holy Scriptures do not just relate stories from the past and that every story in every book provides lessons for all generations. The Midrash Rabbah (Ruth 2:15) explains that the main lesson we learn from the Book of Ruth is how the righteous are rewarded for doing acts of lovingkindness.
The Torah and lovingkindness
Our sages further say (Midrash Lekach Tov) that the reason why we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuous is that just as this Book mainly deals with lovingkindness, so too the Torah, that was given on Shavuous, mainly contains lessons of lovingkindness. This may seem puzzling since the Torah relates to all aspects of life and do not deal just with acts of lovingkindness. However, the Talmud (Sotah 14a) says, "The Torah begins with acts of lovingkindness and finishes off with acts of lovingkindness. In the beginning of the Torah it says, (Bereishis 3:21) 'And G'd made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and He dressed them.' At the end of the Torah it says, (Devarim 34:6) 'And He [G'd] buried him [Moses].'" The whole Torah is enveloped between these two acts of dressing the naked and burying the dead. This teaches that the essence of the Torah is G'd's lesson for mankind to emulate His acts of lovingkindness. We actually find an explicit commandment to this effect. It says (Devarim 13:5) "After Hashem your G'd you shall walk". To this the Talmud (Ibid) questions how is it possible for a human being to follow behind G'd? Says the Talmud, this instructs us to emulate the character traits of G'd. "Just as G'd dresses the naked so shall you dress the naked. Just as G'd visits the sick [when He came to Abraham after his circumcision, see Bereishis 18:1] so shall you visit the sick. Just as G'd comforts the mourners [when He visited Isaac after Abraham had just passed away, see Bereishis 25:11] so shall you comfort the mourners. Just as G'd buries the dead, so shall you bury the dead."
More than lovingkindness
However, we still have a question. All the examples of the Talmud relate to episodes mentioned in the Torah of how G'd conducted Himself with lovingkindness. But the Torah contains a lot more than episodes of G'd's conduct. The Torah records 248 positive commandments and 365 negative commandments which do not seem to fit under one headline of "laws of lovingkindness".
There is a famous story in the Talmud (Shabbos 31a) about a gentile who requested to become a convert on the condition that he could learn all of the Torah while standing on one leg. This strange request was first put to the great sage, Shammai, who followed the common procedure of pushing away someone who wants to convert. Even under normal circumstances a convert seeking to become a member of the Jewish nation will be discouraged to do so. Only if the potential convert persists and shows sincere interest in entering into the covenant of G'd do we slowly allow this to happen. (Incidentally, the Talmud (Yevamos 47b) teaches this based on Ruth's mother-in-law, Naomi, trying to discourage Ruth from converting to Judaism.)
However, the gentile that Shammai pushed away was more sincere than he appeared to be. He did not give up just because one rabbi did not accept him. He persevered and went to see Hillel, the other great sage at the time. Hillel sensed his sincerity and accepted him despite his strange condition. He said to this potential convert, "What you dislike do not do to somebody else. This is the essence of the whole Torah. The rest are explanations. Go and learn it."
Love your fellow
In his commentary, Rashi explains this puzzling instruction of Hillel to mean the following: just as when a human being gives instructions to others to be followed, it will disturb him if they do not follow them, in the same way any member of the Jewish nation must accept the instructions of G'd and not transgress them.
Most fundamental Torah rule
If we analyze the words of Hillel a little closer, we find that he really expressed in negative terms what the Torah teaches and commands us (Vayikra 19:18) "And you shall love your fellow being as yourself." On this verse Rashi quotes the famous words of Rabbi Akiva who said that this is a most fundamental rule of the Torah. Most commandments dealing with our inter-personal relationships are defined by this basic concept. We are obligated to respect other people's lives and possessions, not to harm them, and to deal with them honestly. These are all based on relating to others the way we would like them to relate to us. But what both Hillel and Rabbi Akiva teach is, that we must develop a relationship with G'd Himself that is also based on this fundamental rule.
Shavuous means "weeks"
With this in mind, we can well appreciate the words of Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian who asks why the Festival of Shavuous, which is the day we received the Torah at Mount Sinai, is not named after this great event? Even more strange, the literal translation of the word "Shavuous" means "weeks". What does that have to do with this Festival? Rabbi Lopian points out that the seven weeks leading up to this day, when we receive the Torah anew are weeks where we are expected to prepare ourselves to be ready to accept the Torah. In the last chapter of Pirkei Avos it provides 48 requirements one needs in order to be able to acquire Torah. These 48 requirements include many areas of refining one's character and by doing so emulating the ways of G'd.
No flour, no Torah
The Maharal (Drush al haTorah) explains that these 48 requirements correspond to the 49 days between Passover and Shavuous. On each of these days we count the counting of the Omer (Sefirot Haomer). It is so called because the first day of our counting is the day when we brought the Omer offering during the Temple era. The significance of this day, explains the Maharal, alludes to what the Mishnah says (ibid 3:21) "If there is no flour [sustenance] there is no Torah." The offering of the Omer was an offering of the new harvest. In this way the Torah teaches us that in order to accept the Torah, the Jewish people must first of all make sure that the students of Torah are provided for and be sustained. The second condition to accept the Torah is the 48 requirements for the acquisition of Torah. Only when we have fully utilized the seven weeks leading up to the day of the giving of Torah can we celebrate this day in its proper fashion. This is why Shavuous is called the "Festival of the Weeks."
Mother of the royal dynasty
Ruth, a Moabite princess, came from an extremely immoral society of idol worshippers. She rose to great spiritual heights and stands as an example how any individual can elevate themselves when they are sincere. With her selfless acts of lovingkindness, she gave up the splendor of royalty to dedicate herself to attend to the needs of her ailing mother-in-law, a shining example for everyone to emulate. G'd rewarded her not only to become the mother of the royal dynasty of King David, but also the future king of the Jewish people, the Mashiach, will be a worthy descendant of this great woman.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network