Why is Megillat Rut, the Megillah or scroll of Ruth, chanted on the holiday of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks? There are a number of reasons. First, the story of Ruth takes place at harvest time and Shavuot happens at the completion of the harvesting of grain crops. Another reason is that Shavuot was when King David was born and died and David was Ruth’s great-grandson. Yet another reason is that Ruth was a convert who accepted the Torah and Shavuot was when the Torah was given to, and accepted by, the Children of Israel after they left Egypt.
The story of Ruth begins with a man named Elimelech, who along with his wife Naomi and two sons, left a famine-stricken Bethlehem to live outside of Israel in Moab. Elimelech moved with his family, not because he was searching for food and a better life – in fact, he was one of the richest men in Israel. Elimelech left so that he would not be bothered by those who suffered the starvation; he did not want to share any of his wealth to help others, even though he had more than enough to do so.
For that, Elimelech was punished by losing his wealth and his life. After his two sons married Moabite women, the sons died as well. It was then that Naomi decided to return to Israel and she exhorted her two daughters-in-law to return to their Moab homes. One did return home, the other daughter-in-law, Ruth, did not. Ruth was a Moabite princess and she could have returned to a life of luxury, but she decided to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi knowing she would now live in poverty.
Ruth loved her elderly mother-in-law and wanted to be with her and also take care of her, even if it meant she would not only be poor but looked at as an outcast. Famously, in the first chapter (Ruth 1:16-17), Ruth says, “Do not urge me to leave you, to return and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.”
Ruth traveled with Naomi back to Bethlehem and became a convert to Judaism. Ruth decided to help Naomi and herself by going out to the barley fields to collect grain that is purposely left over for the poor to gather and keep. By chance, she chose a field owned by the wealthy Boaz, who aware of Ruth’s virtues, and her loving kindness toward her mother-in-law Naomi, makes sure Ruth is treated favorably.
Boaz also happened to be Elimelech’s nephew and this is significant. The Torah mandates that after a childless married man dies, a close relation known as a “goel,” a “redeemer,” is to marry the widow to take care of her and the deceased’s property, and to carry on the deceased’s name. Boaz was such a relative. Naomi, looking to find a secure life for Ruth tells her daughter-in-law to dress nicely and return to Boaz and see what happens.
Ruth does so and tells Boaz he is a redeemer. Boaz felt that perhaps he should indeed be the goel, but there was one relative ahead of him in the line of redeemer succession. So Boaz tells Ruth (chapter 3, verse 13), “If he will redeem you, good, let him do so. But if he does not wish to redeem you, then as God lives, I will redeem you.” Boaz facilitates a court hearing, the closer relative refuses to be the redeemer, and Boaz, with the support and encouragement of the people of Bethlehem, marries Ruth and the new couple have a son.
The rest is history as they say, or the beginning of a history. The megillah ends by listing the generations of Peretz, Judah’s son, through Boaz and ultimately until King David, as the last verse of the megillah states (ibid. 4:22), “And Oved begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David.” Ruth’s decision to stay with Naomi and care for her, along with the way Ruth carried herself, impressed Boaz and led to the birth of one of the greatest men in history.
And that takes us to yet another reason the story of Ruth is retold each year on the holiday the Torah was given to the Jewish people. One of most important precepts of the Torah is loving-kindness – treating others with decency and compassion, especially the less fortunate – the poor, the widow, the orphan and the convert. In fact, it is expressly forbidden to treat those who struggle with life, either because they cannot afford even the most inexpensive provisions, or because they suffered a tremendous loss, or because they enter a new covenant not by birth but by choice and are deemed an outsider, with anything other than benevolence and dignity.
The story of Ruth teaches us the Torah’s lesson of humanity. Elimelech was punished because he refused to be kind to others when it was very easy for him to do so, and Ruth was rewarded because, after accepting the Torah, she decided to be kind when it was very hard for her to do so. Along the way, Ruth’s decision to stay with Naomi led to kindness after kindness, as first Naomi and then Boaz looked out for Ruth, and as the people of Bethlehem expressed great joy and kinship with Naomi, and accepted Ruth, as well Ruth’s union with Boaz with open arms. And from that union came King David.
Chag Shavuot Sameach! Happy Shavuot!