Shabbat Shalom: Shavuot

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson creditEfrat, Israel – Our calendar moves from the spring festivals of Passover and Shavuot to the fall festivals of universal redemption and plenty, a journey in time that parallels a journey in space, from the barren desert to the land of milk and honey –Israel.

In the spring, Passover is linked by the counting of the Omer to its concluding Festival of Shavuot, seven weeks later; the Talmudic Sages even refer to Shavuot as Atzeret, or “Closing Holiday” (paralleling Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day which concludes the fall festival of Succot). And while Passover celebrates the promise of freedom, our journey from slave-labor and suffering to liberation, it is, for the time being, liberation in a hostile and homeless desert.

When does this journey come to an end? Shavuot, celebrated on the 50th day after the Seder of Passover, gives expression to the paradigm of completion, coming full circle, for it celebrates the bounty of the land, the first fruits brought by the Israelites who have not only reached their promised homeland, but have also established their Holy Temple in Jerusalem!

Remarkably, the holidays of this spring period are sandwiched between the public readings of two of our five Biblical Scrolls (Megillot), each of which features a heroic woman as its central personality: Purim is marked by the reading of the Scroll of Esther; Shavuot by the reading of the Scroll of Ruth.

And both Ruth and Esther, two of the greatest heroines of the Bible, have come to symbolize both the internal – and eternal – heart and essence of these festivals. But even more so, their stories, their ‘scrolls’ (these two megillot) reflect each other in remarkable ways, each one a prism into the nature of the other.

First of all, we need to keep in mind that just as Passover moves from the reality of a nation still smarting from slavery and only tasting the beginnings of freedom in the more confining, treacherous landscape of the desert to the far more satisfying Shavuot realization of home and hearth, state and sanctuary, (coming home after being away for so long in Egypt), we find that the Esther-scroll of Purim (pre-Passover) describes the opposite phenomenon, focusing upon Jews in vulnerable galut (exile). In terms of our experience of the festive calendar, Shavuot always culminates the trajectory that starts with Purim, inexorably leading us toward the climactic moment when the Scroll of Ruth is read, ending with its majestic reach for messianic geulah (redemption), the final word recording the name of David, the future king and redeemer of Israel.

A study of the contrasts and comparisons between these two feminist–featuring Scrolls from galut to geulah should elucidate the march of our calenderical journey, which clearly points us in an eastward direction toward Zion.

First of all, the entire story of the Scroll of Esther takes place in Persia, opening with an exquisitely detailed description of the dining chambers of the Persian King in Shushan (Esther 1:6). The Scroll of Ruth, on the other hand, opens in Bethlehem, Israel – and although the rest of that chapter takes place in Moab, the succeeding three chapters all take place around the verdant hills of Bethlehem and Efrat.

It is important for us to realize that the ten years of Naomi’s life in Moab are described in that very first chapter, whereas it takes the next three chapters to detail the crucial events in Israel of only three months duration: from the beginning of the barley harvest to the end of the wheat harvest. These three months prepare the stage for Jewish eternity!

Secondly, according to the Midrash (B.T. Megillah 11a), the Scroll of Esther describes Jews who have the opportunity to return to Judea but opt to remain in the “diaspora;” Ahasverosh was King of Persia immediately following Cyrus, who conquered Babylon and permitted the exiled Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their Temple. Esther may have even changed her name from the Hebrew “Hadassah” to the more Persian “Esther” (probably from the Persian word for star, and the Persian goddess Astarte).

In the Scroll of Ruth, however, the text makes fairly short shrift of the sons of Elimelekh, who leave Bethlehem (Lit. “House of Bread”) for the falsely glittering fields of Moab (lit. “from father” – a reminder of a Biblical act of incest between Lot and his daughter); their names, Makhlon (illness) and Kilyon (destruction) succinctly sum up their galut experience of assimilation and intermarriage.

The remaining three quarters of the book tell of Naomi’s return to her homeland, and of the triumph she eventually experiences there as the “ancestor” of the Messiah David. In short, the Scroll of Ruth is the record of Jews who leave their exiled status and return to Israel.

Thirdly, the Scroll of Esther tells the story of a Jewess in exile who is forced to forsake the home of her relative Mordecai (cousin, uncle, nephew, husband?) and live with a Gentile King in order to save her people; moreover, the salvation she achieves is only temporary, with the Talmud ruling that we don’t even recite Hallel on Purim since we still remained slaves of Ahasverosh even after Haman’s demise (B.T. Megillah 14). The Scroll of Ruth, on the other hand, tells the story of a Gentile Moabite who becomes a Jewess-by-choice, how she journeys to Israel to live with her Jewish mother-in-law, and enters the royal family of Judah when she marries Boaz; moreover, she becomes the progenitrix of ultimate Jewish salvation through the eventual descendant of her great-grandson, David.

Finally, the manner in which we celebrate Purim is by drinking until “we can no longer distinguish between praising Mordecai and cursing Haman, perhaps because it was the arch anti-Semite Amalekite Haman who forcibly reminded the assimilating Jews of Persia that they were, after all, Jews; nevertheless, such raucous celebration is certainly not identified with the way in which our Sages generally asked us to celebrate. Shavuot, however, is celebrated by our bringing first fruits to the Temple singing praises to God and staying up all night studying Torah.It seems that true Jewish piety, Jewish future and eternal Jewish salvation can only come out of Zion! Apparently, even a celebration of galut survival must depend upon the temporary “high” of inebriating beverages, whereas a Festival of Jerusalem brings us to the supernal “heights” of our eternal Torah – for even Torah has its first fruits,  through which we glimpse our redemption

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom


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