Shavuot: Let kindness be our guide

May 27, 2020

Shavuot: Let kindness be our guide

By Rabbi Judith Beiner, Community Chaplain

Along with Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot is one of the three major Jewish pilgrimage festivals. It is celebrated 49 days after the second day of Passover, a period of time known as the Omer, and marks the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai (also known as Revelation).

The main ritual associated with Shavuot is known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot. The custom originated among the mystics of Safed.

According to the Midrash, the ancient Israelites overslept on the day of the giving of the Torah. To make up for that ancient error, and to show our eagerness to receive the Torah, the custom emerged of staying up all night to study.

In many synagogues, the study session culminates with a sunrise worship service.Typically on Jewish holidays, we eat meat or fish to accompany our celebrations. Shavuot is the one Jewish observance where the opposite is true — dairy foods like cheesecake, blinzes and borekas are enjoyed.

My favorite part of Shavuot is the reading of the Book of Ruth. The story takes place during the time of the Judges. Ruth and her mother in law Naomi are both widowed and destitute. Rather than returning to her home of Moab, Ruth stays with Naomi and goes with her Bethlehem, where Naomi has family and community to care for them.

Ruth adopts the laws and faith of Naomi’s people (the Israelites), selflessly cares for her mother-in-law, marries Naomi’s kinsman Boaz and bears a child as an heir to the family, whose lineage leads to the birth of David, King of Israel.

The highest ideals of the Torah are played out in the book of Ruth. The characters fulfill their legal and moral obligations under Torah law by caring for the needy in the community, seen in the established practice of gleaning whereby the poor pick up any remaining sheaves after the field has been harvested.

Additionally, Boaz, Naomi’s sole remaining relative undertakes the redemption of Naomi’s land, and marries Naomi’s widowed daughter-in-law ensuring that both Naomi and Ruth are provided for.

It is also worth noting that throughout the text, the main characters speak with words of kindness, deference and respect in all of their interactions, highlighting a central teaching: We need laws to guide us in our lives, and yet those laws truly come to life when they are enacted with kindness.

On Shavuot, we celebrate Z’man Matan Torateinu – the time the giving of the Torah. Torah encompasses more than merely a minimal response to the law’s requirements. The theme of kindess/chesed woven throughout the story of Ruth presents a vision of how we are to act in our fulfillment of what the Torah commands, with a spirit of lovingkindness and generosity towards all who are in need.