Jews value time. That is why we are always counting – days, weeks, months and even years. Now, we are approaching the end of the 49-day count from Pesach to Shavuot, reckoning the days from when we miraculously left the slavery of Egypt to when we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
During these 49 days, we stress character improvement, especially in the field of inter-personal relationships. In this context, we mourn during these weeks the death of the 24,000 students of the renowned Sage Rabbi Akiva. They were taken from this world because they did not treat each other with the high level of respect that was expected of scholars of their caliber.
Ever since, these days have been devoted to character improvement. The possibilities are endless. One person will try to avoid fault-finding or blaming others. Another will resist the temptation to gossip. What about visiting the sick or elderly, greeting people with a smile, giving compliments. Notice those who need help or encouragement. Look for opportunities to extend a good word. A friend I love dearly has a list of 49 character traits that she works on, one for each day of the sefirat ha’omer.
It is surely significant that the focus of these weeks is on improving our relationships with our fellow-man – known in Hebrew as “ben adam le’chaveiroh”. This is the way to prepare ourselves for receiving the Torah on Shavuot.
How beautifully this is mirrored in Megilat Rut, the short book that is read on Shvuot morning. There, we read how the aristocratic Elimelech abandoned his people during a period of famine and fled with his wife Naomi and sons to the neighboring country of corrupt immoral Moab. There, his sons married the daughters of the king.
After a series of tragedies that left Naomi bereft and penniless, she decided to return alone to the Land of Israel. Her daughter-in-law Ruth insisted on accompanying her, committing herself to join the Jewish nation.
In Beth Lechem, they lived alone – penniless, isolated, and rejected by their fellow Jews. Protecting her elderly mother-in-law, it is Ruth the princess who insists on going to the fields to pick up forgotten gleanings from the harvesters, the right of the poor according to Jewish law.
Enter Boaz, righteous judge, highly respected leader of the Jewish nation. Although he heads the supreme court of law in Israel, his concern remains for each individual, especially those in need. Struck by the modest behavior of Ruth, he asks who she is and is told derisively that this is the Moabite who returned with Naomi. Ignoring the disparaging comment, Boaz turns to Ruth with words of encouragement and endorsement. He does not think it beneath his dignity
Addressing Ruth gently, he tells her to remain in his field where he will ensure that she is treated with respect and dignity. Overwhelmed with gratitude that someone has given her a kind word, she asks Boaz why he is giving her attention. After all, she is a stranger, a foreigner to the Jewish nation. In response, Boaz patiently explains that he has heard of her extraordinary devotion to her mother-in-law and the enormous self-sacrifice she displayed to join the Jewish nation. Reassuringly, he promises that her good deeds will be fully rewarded from Heaven. These heartfelt words of sincerity have their effect. Ruth’s suffering eases. In turn, she reciprocates his kindness by telling him how grateful she is that he has helped her, although she knows that she is different from the other women around her.
Boaz and Ruth personified supreme loving kindness. In Hebrew, this is called “chessed”, reckoned as one of the pillars of the world.
How fitting that Ruth, the Moabite married Boaz, the Judge. They bore a son, ancestor of David, King of Israel.
Chag Samayach! I wish you all an uplifting and joyous Shavuot!