At sundown on June 8th, we celebrate the second of our three pilgrimage holidays: those being: Passover, Shavuoth, and Succoth. Most people know quite a lot about Passover and Succoth, but Shavuoth’s importance is less well known. We often tend to overlook its message. Shavuoth is not only the day that we celebrate the receiving of the Ten Commandments, but also the day in which we mark Jewish nationhood. If Passover symbolizes our national independence from Egyptian slavery, Shavuoth represents the dawn of Hebrew civilization.
During this holiday we also read the beautiful and somewhat erotic love story found in “Megillat Ruth/The Book of Ruth”. Ruth’s life is one of the contradictions. It was filled with confrontation and accommodation, tragedy and happiness. Throughout the text we see Ruth struggling to balance her personal needs with those of others. In that sense, Ruth represents both the ancient and modern woman: the woman who must assure the survival of the species and yet find personal meaning in her own life.
We might also find this same theme throughout the holiday of Shavuoth and the Giving of the Ten Commandments. Like the Book of Ruth, Shavuoth holds us responsible not only for observing the law but also for its interpretation. And like the Book of Ruth, Shavuoth teaches the notion of human responsibility.
It is of note that the holiday makes no mention of Moses but instead speaks of a foreign woman, Ruth: why? Were the ancient rabbis trying to teach us an important lesson by omitting mention of Moses? Might they have been trying to teach us that it is a people’s commitment that builds a nation and not the charismatic brilliance of its leaders? Leaders come and go, but the nation endures, leaders reflect the popular will, but its legal system expresses the nation’s eternal values!
Is Shavuoth teaching us that a civilization declines when its citizens’ egocentric needs predominate over their civic responsibility; that the death of society comes when egocentricity overtakes commitment to principles?
Both Shavuoth and its main character, Ruth, challenge us to ask: How does each person find the way to match his/her personal needs with the demands of society? Does law represent ideals or simply goals, and can we ever be too strict in our adherence to the law? How we answer these questions not only helps to mold our own lives but also that of our society.
Shavuoth’s message is not easy to accept, especially in historical periods such as ours, a society based on self-centeredness and self-absorption. Perhaps it is precisely for times such as ours that its message is most important. What do you think?
Here is my monthly philosophy article. Published on June 1st in the Bryan Eagle.
Youtubes of the week:
A Shavuot Song:
Shavout in Israel seen in Brazil:
A Song in honor of cheese:
A land of milk and honey sung by Jews in France: