This evening is Shavuot, the anniversary of the revelation at Sinai. There is much to be said about the day of giving the Ten Commandments by God to Israel. One tradition surrounding Shavuot is the recitation of the Book of Ruth. Five holidays during the Jewish Year have an associated biblical reading of an entire book from the writings, known as a Megilah. Most known of course is Esther and Purim. There is also Ecclesiastes for Sukkot, the Song of Songs for Passover, and Lamentations for Tisha B’Av. Each book has some association to the holiday involved. Lamentations bewails the destruction of Jerusalem, Purim the telling of the story of the holiday. Some are more difficult. Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes may reflect the feeling of the season of the year, spring and autumn respectively.
Ruth might be both of these. Most obvious is the seasonal aspect. Besides being the giving of Torah, Shavuot marks the barley harvest, and we read in Ruth:
22. So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, with her, who returned from the country of Moab; and they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. [Ruth 1]
But there is another reason. The story of Ruth is about the Moabite woman Ruth and her Israelite Mother-in-law Naomi. Naomi, her husband and their two sons try to escape a famine in Israel by moving to the neighboring country of Moab. Her sons marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah, while there. Tragically, Naomi’s husband and sons die in Moab. With Naomi, Ruth and Orpah now widows, Naomi decides to go back to her hometown of Bethlehem, hearing the famine is over. She insists that her daughters in law stay with their native people and their religion. Orpah eventually agrees to stay in Moab, but Ruth is adamant
16. And Ruth said, Do not entreat me to leave you,
Or to keep from following you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
Your God my God;
17. Where you die, will I die,
There will I be buried;
May the Lord do so to me, and more also,
If even death parts me from you. [Ruth 1]
With this statement, Ruth and Naomi travel on to Bethlehem, to live as paupers until a combination of Ruth’s determination and a relative of Naomi’s late husband invoking Levirate marriage laws end up with a happy ending. Ruth has a baby boy named Obed. So happy is the ending we are told the descendants of the baby,
22. And Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David. [Ruth 4]
The Davidic line of kings comes from this story, and thus by implication the lineage of the Messiah. As is made clear by the story, Ruth is not Jewish. What makes her a matriarch of line of David and Solomon? There have been several answers. One is her lying at the feet of Boaz and asking him for the levirate marriage. Yet my belief is that it is 1:16-17 above that is the true act that marks her as Jewish. We read at Sinai that the people said we will do and we will hear. [Exodus 24:3] The reversal of doing and hearing is taken as a deep sense of faith and commitment. So too with Ruth, explaining poetically she will follow Naomi and Naomi’s people. It is commitment that is key, a commitment to God. The Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai will cross through Moab in their journey to the Land. There they will face their last test of commitment. Some fail in the worship and subsequent plague of Baal Peor. Most of the Israelites will succeed in Moab, and resist temptation. Ruth, in her journey from Moab to Judah will do the same. By making clear her commitment to Naomi and Naomi’s God, she makes clear her commitment to God.
Passover was the time to declare our freedom. But freedom without a structure, a commitment to something, is chaos. After reflecting on what our commitment might be for 49 days, we make that commitment. The people at Sinai went through a conversion on the first Shavuot, as did Ruth when she declared “your god (is) my god.” The commitment made them Jewish. All were converts by embracing a structure of mitzvot and God. Thus Ruth and the people on this day commit to the path of mitzvot.
Yet, to commit to something often means breaking other commitments. For Ruth to commit to there shall be no other gods before me requires breaking her old commitments to other gods. She does break those commitments of course. I was thinking about such commitments in the last weeks due to a problem some of my congregants are going to run into, which is part of one I described last week.
Up till a few weeks ago, I was involved with creating a schedule of Torah readings for Shabbat services. This may sound easy, but as a Reform synagogue using the Conservative triennial cycle there are lots of problems. The triennial cycle breaks the Torah reading into three parts read on successive years. One problem is that when there is a double portion, one must break up the portions in a particular order that takes into account all three years of the cycle. This makes for a rather confusing set of rules to get a complete cycle of Torah readings, one that few understand, particularly when our synagogue does not have the same start of the cycle as the Conservative movement uses. We are pretty much alone to my knowledge in our use of this system in this way, so there are no references to follow. The second problem reared its ugly head a few months ago when our cantor noted a problem with the schedule. Using the Conservative schedule, Shavuot is two days long, so this Shabbat is a special Shavuot reading. But Reform has only a one day Shavuot, making this a regular Shabbat, so our schedule is off. There are ways to accommodate this, and the way the cantor and I picked means there is a few weeks where our synagogue will be off the readings of other synagogues. There has been confusion already.
As I mentioned last week, when I decided to cut out a lot of the activities that I can’t handle in my schedule, my involvement with the Torah schedule was one of those casualties. I made new commitment to do my job so I get paid, and to spend time with Sweetie. I could live a life of exhaustion or be committed to a few things that really matter. But the questions about this system continue. So I have had to resist getting involved again, and getting lost in this quagmire. I had had questions headed my way, and as angry or disappointed as those people might be at my answer, I have to stick to my commitment and tell them “I can’t help”
For many of us, it is easy to get sucked into things we made a commitment not to do. But that is part of our positive commitments too. It can hurt to not help someone and to stick on track. But that is the proverbial paved road of good intentions. We must stick to our primary commitments, or get hopelessly lost. When I was involved with this, I gave 100%. But when I realized what I need to do required dropping it, it means dropping 100% of it. That is the commitment Ruth is embracing. She is embracing a commitment to never see her family, friends or gods ever again. It is a huge commitment, far more than a small volunteer position. For those I know who make such commitments I have a huge amount of respect. It’s not easy changing everything, as I’ve learned in the last few months. But sometimes the really good commitments require it. The commitment to true love either of God or one’s soulmate does require it.
As we celebrate the commitment tonight, may we pray all our commitments are for good, and we leave our commitments for bad behind.