"Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Eternal do to me if anything but death parts me from you." (Ruth 1:16-17)
-Ruth's promise to Naomi.
Sometimes the most profound truths are simple; and the most profound revelations of the Divine in our lives do not involve the extraordinary. So it is with the Book of Ruth, a tale of friendship between two women, both widows, one a foreigner born to the tribe of Moab.
The Book of Ruth begins when Naomi's husband takes his family abroad to escape a famine. Naomi's husband and her two sons die, leaving her alone with her daughters-in-law. Ruth and Orpah accompany her out into the wilderness on the road to Bethlehem. Realizing that the younger women will face severe hardship, Naomi attempts to dissuade them from accompanying her. There is particular enmity between Moab and Judah. Naomi has no sons left to betroth them. It is unlikely they will ever find husbands. They will live out their lives, not only as widows, but as lonely and despised foreigners in a strange and inhospitable land.
Orpah reluctantly kisses Naomi good-bye and returns to the house of her mother. But Ruth follows after uttering the vow quoted above.
Why would this mundane tale of love and friendship between two women become the reading for Shavuot, the celebration of the giving of the Torah, our loftiest moment as Jews?
There are a few esoteric topics I could choose to expound: genealogies, gematria, things that happen during the harvest. But in the end, they don't matter.
The point of the Book of Ruth is that the greatest expression of our devotion to God and Torah is our devotion those we love. Ruth was willing to leave her homeland, a place where she enjoyed a small amount of social standing, to accompany her mother-in-law to an unwelcoming land and an uncertain future. She becomes a symbol of the Jewish people who accept the Torah in the wilderness, breaking from our past as slaves in Egypt to become a free people.
What is freedom for if not for friendship and devotion?
There is a tradition that at any given time, the world depends on thirty tzaddikim, righteous individuals, who serve as pillars, holding up creation. It's easy to forget that the righteous might not be men. They might not be respected. They might not be the people we look to as "pillars of society."
Judaism is rooted in scholarship. We want to follow the cleverest scholar, and can get lost in Torah study to demonstrate how much we know, how worthy we are of the devotion of others. This is particularly true on Shavuot. I can recall a few all-nighters devoted to weighty topics such as how to dispose of the dirty water after I've kashered my dishes, or can I fumigate my baskets before Shabbat if a witness claims the sun has set when in fact, it has not.
Ruth was a nobody.
Ruth didn't worry whether it was proper to fumigate her baskets if somebody incorrectly claimed the sun had set when it hadn't. She went out into the fields of Naomi's cousin Boaz to glean, morning through evening, to provide for the well-being of her mother-in-law.
Ruth became the great-grandmother of David, and a trusted Jewish Elder because of her freely offered devotion to Naomi. And Boaz, Naomi's cousin who offered Ruth protection to glean in his field, became the honored husband of a good woman because he judged her for her actions and not the circumstances of her birth.