She was a Moabite princess who converted to Judaism in the 10th century BCE,
but what does her story have to do with the events at Mount Sinai more than 300 years earlier?
Why is it that we read the Book of Ruth — the story of a Moabite woman who converted to Judaism and who eventually married a judge of Israel, Boaz — on Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai?
Torah commentators offer two major theses to explain the custom:
that Ruth was the model of Torah acceptance, and
that without her Jewish history could not continue.
Both are puzzling as we shall see, and we shall explore them one by one.
The first one seems quite straightforward, at least at first glance: Shavuot commemorates the acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people, and the Book of Ruth describes the acceptance of the Torah by a single individual through an act of conversion.
Inasmuch as we were all converts at Mt. Sinai, her experience is a reminder to us that we are all Jews only thanks to our own act of Torah acceptance. Judaism is not a racial trait and is not automatic for anyone; at bottom it is based on conversion and Torah acceptance even for the children of Abraham.
Ruth was no ordinary convert. Her name gives us a clue to her essence. In Hebrew, Ruth’s name is comprised of the letters reish, vav, tav, which add up to a numerical value of 606. As all human beings have an obligation to observe the seven Noachide commandments — so called because they were given after the flood — as did Ruth upon her birth as a Moabite. Add those seven commandments to the value of her name and you get 613, the number of commandments in the Torah.
The essence of Ruth, her driving life force was the discovery and acceptance of the 606 commandments she was missing. Thus Ruth is a Torah seeker par excellence who is held up to the rest of us as the shining model of proper Torah acceptance. If we could learn to emulate Ruth in our own act of Torah acceptance, the act of Divine service that is the essence of Shavuot, we would succeed in absorbing the entire spiritual input offered by God on the Shavuot holiday. (See the commentary of the Gaon of Vilna on the Book of Ruth.)
While quite obvious at first glance, this theme does present a major difficulty on closer examination.
Anyone reading the story of Ruth is immediately struck by the strength of her dedication to her mother in law, Naomi. The famous passage from which the Talmud derives many of the laws of conversion (Yevomot 47b) portrays Ruth’s stubborn refusal to part from Naomi in the strongest possible terms.
But Ruth said, ‘Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back from following you. For where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may God do to me, and so may He do more, if anything but death separates me from you. (Ruth 1:16-17)
Such love and commitment to the welfare of another person are extremely admirable qualities, but are unrelated to belief in God and in His Torah. Shouldn’t someone who is held up to us as a shining example to emulate in our own acceptance of Torah be portrayed as being driven by faith and idealism rather than by her attachment to a particular person, or indeed, to the entire Jewish people for that matter?
ATTACHMENT TO GOD
Let us explore this point through an examination of a difficult passage of Talmud:
Rabbi Elazar said: “People who have no Torah knowledge will not experience the revival of the dead, as it is written, (in Isaiah 26): The dead shall not live. You might think this refers to all the dead, that’s why it is followed up by: Those requiring a cure will not rise. Only those whose hold on the words of Torah is shaky and weak will not rise.”
Rabbi Yochanan responded: “You have brought no pleasure to their Maker by making this statement about the ignorant in Torah.”
Rabbi Elazar saw that his words caused Rabbi Yochanan anguish. He said, “My Rebbe, I have found a cure for them in the Torah. It is written, But you who cleave to YHVH your God, you are all alive today (Deut 4:4). But how is it possible for a human being to be attached to the Divine Presence when it is written For YHVH your God, He is a consuming fire (Ibid 24). Can a person attach himself to fire? To teach you, that whoever marries his daughter to a Torah scholar, or helps the Torah scholar in business or shares his property with a scholar, is looked upon by God as attached to Himself … (Talmud, Kesubot, 111b)
Why should the resurrection be related to one’s level of scholarship, and how can we relate to the idea that attachment to the Torah scholar is the equivalent of attachment to God?
One of the 613 commandments is the commandment to love God. This seems like an impossible commandment to fulfill. How can you love somebody who you do not know? Furthermore, God is infinite and we are not, we have no comprehension of how He thinks, what His interests are, or His hobbies or anything about Him.
Without knowing some of these details at least about another person it would be impossible for us to honestly say we loved him. We might think he is a very important person, we might even admire him, but to feel love and attachment to somebody, we must be somewhat familiar with the object of our affections.
Of course, this is also true about our love of God. We can only feel love for God to the extent that we develop a knowledge of Him and familiarity with Him.
But how can we do this?
The obvious solution is through our knowledge of Torah. God gave us a lot of information about Himself in His Torah. He told us about His sense of justice and fairness, about His priorities and feelings, about His hopes and dreams for our future.
There are two aspects to Torah knowledge and scholarship:
1. All Jews must amass sufficient Torah knowledge to know how to carry out the commandments properly, as the performance of the commandments is an obligation.
2. The second aspect is unrelated to the performance of the commandments. The Talmud Chacham studies the Torah to become familiar with God, and learn His culture.
The first word of the Ten Commandments is Anochi. The Talmud says this is an acrostic that stands for ano nafshi kasvis yahavis, literally “I have written myself into this book that I am giving you.” (Talmud Shabos, 105a). The Talmud Chacham who spends his life immersed in Torah study, is imbibing the very soul of God along with the words of Torah that he is learning.
Our aim is familiarity with God as a personality that we can have a relationship with. We want to love God and have Him love us in return, and we want to be aware of the feelings on both sides. For this we need the Talmud Chacham.
It is only through him that we obtain the knowledge of God that is a prerequisite to any possible relationship with Him. Just as in the case of human love, knowledge precedes feelings, so it is with the love of God. Without the Torah scholar this knowledge, and therefore this love, would be absent from the world.
It is one of the many wonders of Judaism that often the Tzaddik who immerses himself in the service of God, such as prayer and good works, feels a greater love for God than the Torah scholar, who spends his life in intellectual pursuit. But without the knowledge of God generated by the Torah scholar, the Tzaddik would not have known how to get started in his pursuit of the emotional attachment to God.
Love of God thus radiates outward from the Torah. The Tzaddik attaches himself to the Torah scholar and is the first to feel this love, and those who attach themselves to the Tzaddik detect its radiant warmth and energy through him. But the ultimate source of this love is the Torah and our access to the Torah must necessarily depend on the amount of Torah knowledge in our possession thanks to the efforts and hard work of the Torah scholar.
To Be Continued Next Week, IY’H