The Holiday of Shavuot
On Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of the Torah and the centuries of commentary, debate, and conversation that followed – and continue to this day. For the last several centuries, the printed book was the best medium we had to record, transmit, and engage with Torah.
The Torah introduces the momentous event of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish nation with the verse (Shemot 19), “On the third month from when the children of Israel left Egypt, on this day they arrived at the Sinai desert.”
Our Sages in the Pesikta ask: Why is it that the Torah was not given to the Jewish nation until the Third month (i.e. the month of Sivan, which is the third month according to the Torah’s calculation with the year beginning with Nissan)? Rabbi Levi explained this with a parable: Once, a king’s son became ill. When he was healed, his advisors wished to send him back to school immediately. The king said, “My son’s radiance did not yet return to him, how do propose that he learn? Let him enjoy himself with food and drink for two or three months and then he will return to his studies.”
So too, when the Jewish nation left Egypt, they were worthy of receiving the Torah. However, Hashem said, “they have not yet regained their radiance after the bondage of cement and bricks and they wish to receive the Torah? Rather, I shall allow my children to enjoy themselves by eating the Manna and quail and let them then receive the Torah during the Third month.”
Hashem performed a great kindness for us by giving us a true Torah and imbuing us with eternal life; however, within this kindness, Hashem performed another kindness for us by giving us the Torah only when we were physically healthy and capable of receiving it and not when we were in a frenzy immediately following our exodus from Egypt. Although Hashem could have performed a miracle and instantly strengthen the Jewish nation, we have already written in the past that Hashem wishes, as much as possible, to direct the world in a natural manner. It is for this reason that he waited almost three months for us until we were able to receive the Torah.
The Gemara (Sotah 14a) states: “The Torah begins with kindness and ends with kindness. The Torah begins with kindness, as the verse states, ‘Hashem made for the man and his wife leather tunics and he clothed them.’ The Torah ends with kindness, as the verse states, “And He (Hashem) buried him (Moshe Rabbeinu) in the valley.’”
Our Sages mean to teach us that just as we see that the Torah begins and ends with acts of kindness, this signifies that the entire Torah is the epitome of kindness. If the entire root of Torah is kindness, it follows that all of the Mitzvot of the Torah, include the detailed monetary laws, are all contingent on Hashem’s endless kindness. Indeed, Rabbeinu Moshe Chaim Luzzato (author of Mesillat Yesharim) writes that our entire service of Hashem in this world is because we wish to earn our reward and not only to receive it as a result of Hashem’s kindness. Thus, even when the Torah commands us regarding various methods of acquisition and other intricate monetary laws, this is a result of Hashem’s kindness to us, for He wishes us to gain possession of our material belongings so that one may enjoy the fruits of his labor.
It is for this reason that our Sages instituted that Megillat Ruth be read during the Shavuot holiday, for the theme of this Megillah is inherently kindness, as the verse states, “Naomi said: ‘May Hashem perform kindness with you, just as you have done with the deceased and with me.’”
However, the Megillah seemingly does not mention any other kindness that Ruth and her sister performed for their husbands other than the fact that they were married to them. Similarly, the verse later in the Megillah states, “Boaz replied and told her: ‘I have been told about everything you have done for your mother-in-law after your husband’s demise.’” This is quite perplexing, for Ruth did not do anything for Naomi as Naomi actually pleaded with Ruth to return to her land and her people while Ruth cleaved to Naomi for her own personal benefit. If so, how can such actions be considered acts of “kindness,” so much so that the verse states, “My daughter, you are blessed to G-d; your last kindness is better than your first”? Here too, Ruth went to Boaz for her own benefit; how can the verse call this kindness?
Our Sages (Pesachim 8a) teach us: “One who says, “I shall donate money to Tzedakah on the condition that my son lives,’ is considered completely righteous.” It seems that although one donated charity for one’s own benefit and not for the sake of Heaven, one’s actions are nevertheless accepted and appreciated by Hashem. Based on this, any action that one performs, even if one intends to do so primarily for one’s self, as long as others are gaining from this action as well and the individual does intend for others to benefit, one’s actions are considered those of kindness and charity.
Thus, if a grocer, bookseller, or bus driver do their work primarily for their own livelihood, nevertheless, as long as they also intend to benefit others and others do indeed benefit from their actions, they perform endless Mitzvot by doing so.
On the other hand, we must realize how much kindness we receive from others and how much gratitude we owe to those around us. This realization causes Hashem great satisfaction when we give back to others and perform acts of kindness with them.
The great kindness which Ruth performed for Naomi was that, ultimately, Naomi did not remain alone in the world. Similarly, the fact that she went and married Boaz was likewise considered a great act of kindness, for by doing so, she was a partner in establishing the illustrious dynasty of King David’s kingdom.
We customarily read Megillat Ruth on Shavuot in order to show that the basis of the Torah and its essence is pure kindness by learning, teaching, and observing the Torah’s laws. Indeed, the greatest kindness possible is teaching Torah to others, for by doing so, one shares the spiritual wealth Hashem has given the Jewish nation with others. Similarly, the Gemara states, “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who teaches his grandson Torah is considered to have transmitted the Torah to him from Mount Sinai, as the verse states, ‘And you shall make them known to your sons and your grandsons.” This applies when one teaches one’s grandson Torah. However, if one teaches Torah to others, even if Hashem has decreed a harsh decree, Hashem will annul it for this individual because of the spiritual wealth and abundance that one shares with others.
Chag Same’ach and Tizku Le’Shanim Rabbot Ne’Imot Ve’Tovot!