Sometimes, the simplest questions are the most profound!
The question that came to me recently was, “Why do we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot?” Rabbi Google gave me familiar answers: Shavuot is a Spring harvest holiday and the story of Ruth takes place during that time. Also, Ruth personifies Chesed or Lovingkindness, and Shavuot celebrates G-d’s great love for Israel in giving us the Torah.
However, there’s another way to link the Book of Ruth to Shavuot. Shavuot is also called the holiday of Receiving the Torah, and the Hebrew word for “receive” or “accept” is Kabal. This is the root of the word Kabbalah, which refers to the Jewish mystical tradition, so I want to look at the Book of Ruth through this mystical lens.
As you know, we’ve just finished counting the Omer. The Omer was the sheaf of grain brought to the Temple on Shavuot. The 49 days from the second night of Passover to Shavuot represented a period of transformation from the barley harvest to the wheat harvest. In Exodus, it represented our forebears’ transformation from slaves to a people ready to receive the Torah. Today, counting the Omer also presents us with an opportunity for transformation, for refining our character as we prepare to metaphorically receive the Torah anew.
Each of the 7 weeks between Passover and Shavuot corresponds to a particular trait which is said to be an aspect of the Divine. Since we are created in G-d’s image, we seek to embody these traits in our own lives. In Jewish Mysticism, these aspects of the Divine are known as the Tree of Life.
So, you may be asking, what’s this got to do with the Book of Ruth? When I read that Ruth personifies Chesed or Lovingkindness, the Divine characteristic we study during the first week of the Omer, I wondered about the other traits. To my surprise, and, I admit, delight, the remaining 6 traits all appear in the story of Ruth, in the order in which they appear on the Tree of Life!
Ruth’s Chesed is apparent in her caring for her mother-in-law, Naomi. Boaz also remarks on Ruth’s Chesed in explaining why he is acting kindly toward her.
The next trait on the Tree of Life is Gevurah. Gevurah means strength or setting limits. Naomi exercises Gevurah by setting boundaries when she sends Orpah and Ruth away.
Ruth’s response, however, in pledging her loyalty to Naomi represents the third trait, Tiferet. Tiferet represents beauty, balance and harmony. Ruth accepts the limits Naomi places on their relationship with open-hearted love, saying, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.”
Once back in Bethlehem, Ruth perseveres, gleaning the fields behind the reapers. She works tirelessly, drawing on the quality of Netzach or endurance. She also exhibits the next spiritual quality of Hod. Hod represents humility and underlies Ruth’s action of prostrating herself before Boaz as she asks, “Why are you so kind to me when I am a foreigner?”
The two last character traits on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life are Yesod and Malchut. Yesod expresses itself in our foundational values or identity. Ruth stands on a firm foundation of caring and loyalty, endurance and humility. In manifesting these values, she becomes the conduit for nobility, the definition of Malchut. Malchut is the aspect of kingship or queenship represented by the Shekhinah. When we welcome the Sabbath Queen on Shabbat, we are bringing the Shekhinah present into the world.
Moreover, at the end of the Book of Ruth, Ruth gives birth to Obed, grandfather of King David. Ruth is compared to Rachel and Leah, our Matriarchs and to Tamar, another Mother of the Davidic line. David himself represents Malchut as King and as the progenitor of the Mashiach. Ruth brings nobility into the world both by her actions and by the lineage she births.
So the Book of Ruth presents us with a human analog to a mystical construct. It turns the simple story of a virtuous woman into a template for emulating the Divine.
When we remove the Torah from the Ark we sing, “L’ha Adonai, ha gedulah, v’ha-g’vurah v’ha-tiferet, v’ha-netzach v’ha-hod,” invoking G-d’s aspects or traits. As we read the Book of Ruth, think of it not only as the story of a woman of valor, but also as a guide for our personal transformation in our journey to receive the Torah today.