The custom of reading the Biblical tale of Ruth on Shavuot dates to a post-Talmudic work, Masechet Sofrim, which seems to suggest that Ruth should be read on the Shabbat before Shavuot – that would be this week. In any event, Ruth is in the air.
The highest point of drama comes in the first chapter. Naomi has nothing to offer her daughters-in-law and attempts to send them away. Ruth refuses to leave and utters this magnificent affirmation; ‘Where you go, I go. Where you dwell, I dwell. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God.’ She throws in her lot with Naomi with something verging on recklessness. In a world in which we increasingly step back to ponder the opportunity cost of one action over another or seek to cherry pick only such parts of a relationship as we find immediately gratifying, Ruth’s deems commitment primary, analysis or gratification, if they figure at all, are subservient.
It’s the perfect model for the most important symbol of Shavuot; accepting Torah. When God announces the gift of Torah to the Israelites they respond ‘we will do and we will understand.’ The Rabbis read this verse to prioritise action above understanding. The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) suggests that the vital importance of leading with action to be a secret of the angels and professes astonishment that humans could possibly discover such a gift. There is a similar idea at the heart of Jewish conceptions of marriage. First we recite the blessings of Kiddushin – commitment. Only after commitment do we recite the blessings of Nisuin – joy and celebration. Again, commitment comes first. I think all important relationships work this way. Commit first and allow the understanding to follow. It makes no balance up the pros and cons of falling in love with a particular person – or not. Similarly it makes no sense to decide to fall in love only with those parts of a person that we find appealing, love is a package deal. Judaism likewise isn’t about flicking through the various rituals and rhythms selecting the ones that instinctively appeal – who doesn’t like challah! – and deeming the less immediately gratifying demands unnecessary.
I was discussing Shul attendance this week with the current, and a former, Chairman. There are more members at Kiddush – who doesn’t like Kiddush! – but fewer members earlier in the service – as if the Shema has been deemed unnecessary. There are more life-cycle events – who doesn’t like a baby blessing! – but fewer members at weekday Yom Tov services. Ruth gets her reward for her all-embracing commitment; a husband and child, and it’s true that not all leaps of commitment necessarily result in such an obviously happy ending, but I suspect every happy ending required, at an earlier point in the story, a leap of commitment. This Shabbat, this Shavuot, I urge us all to leap a little. Come earlier, stay later, come at all! Ease up on the critical analysis, open up the possibility of falling in love, even falling in love with this extraordinary faith and heritage we share.