The story of Ruth is read every Shavuot, and one of the reasons for this is that Ruth made a commitment, accepting the Torah and its Mitzvot just as Israel accepted them at Sinai and just as we renew our commitment to the Torah each year on this festival. In a sense the entire nation of Israel converted at that occasion, and we renew our vows at the same time each year. It is therefore very sensible to read the story of Ruth on Shavuot.
But the story of Ruth begs some questions. A girl from a pagan society gets involved with a family of Israel, eventually choosing to leave her family and become part of the Judaic nation. She had some difficulties to overcome, as Biblical restrictions had been placed on her nation in regards to conversion, but aside from that she won the respect and admiration not only of all those who knew her but from all generations of Jews thereafter. Her story was canonized as one of the 24 books of Tanach, studied by every Jewish child who has a Jewish education, commented upon by scholars along with their commentaries on Leviticus and the book of Samuel. How did that come to be? How did Ruth achieve not only acceptance of the nation of Israel, but she was embraced by them, becoming no different to one who had been a member of the tribe for a thousand years!
Conversion is a curious thing. On the one hand conversion provides membership into the club of Judaism. Yet, a convert steps into a club which is fraught with baggage, filled with historic memory. The nation of Israel carries a tremendous heritage as well as a painful burden. We have a history of thousands of years, we carry the scars of some of the most horrific persecutions and we stand on the shoulders of exceptional ancestry. How does one step into the shoes of a Jew and assume that identity by merely making a commitment? What gave Ruth the ability to merge into the Jewish nation, becoming not only a rank and file member of Israel, but eventually giving birth to the progeny of the Davidic dynasty, which would forever serve as the leadership of the nation?
The Meshech Chochmah explains that Mitzvot are the vehicles of relationships. They create connections for us. There are two primary types of connections, and correspondingly there are two types of Mitzvot. Some Mitzvot are geared to bind us to our creator. The Mitzvah of Mezuzah is one example of that. Mezuzah is a commandment that we fulfil continuously by maintaining a parchment with the Shema on our doorpost. It involves no social interplay. This category of Mitzvot builds and enhances our relationship with God, each Mitzvah thickening the strand connecting us with God.
Other Mitzvot tie us to one another. Such Mitzvot serve as a binder connecting people to people. These Mitzvot also enhance our relationship with God but they have an interpersonal focus. All Mitzvot governing our interactions with one another, all mandated acts of consideration of the other, have such an objective.
Shabbat and Yom Tov are two institutions wherein these respective ideas are expressed. Shabbat focuses more on the individual than on the collective. The prohibitions of Shabbat restrict such activities such as food preparation. Food creates an inviting atmosphere which brings people together, but Shabbat doesn’t allow for that. There is also a restriction of transporting items from one place to another, limiting our ability to share with each other. Shabbat is thus not an institution designed to bring people together. It creates a space for individuals to focus on Torah study and devote energy to intensifying their relationship with God. We connect with other indirectly only, as we all share this common goal and destination. Although we do spend Shabbat together, and we are able to share within certain parameters, the nature of Shabbat demonstrates that the focus of the day is on our relationship with God.
Yom Tov, on the other hand, lacks those restrictions hindering social interaction. Transporting items from one area to another is permitted, enabling sharing, and many elements of food preparation, including cooking, are permitted on Yom Tov. This allows Yom Tov to serve as the vehicle for enhancing our relationships with one another.
Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein points out that the first evening of Pesach, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, relates to a time when the people of Israel were not united directly, connected only indirectly through the common Mitzvah of the Pesach offering. This offering did not allow for sharing. Only those who had “registered” for a particular Pascal lamb could partake of its meat. In that respect the first Pesach resembled the institution of Shabbat more than it resembled the nature of Yom Tov.
Following the first day of Pesach, however, the Torah gives us a Mitzvah. Mimachorat HaShabbat, on the morrow of the Shabbat (referring to the day after the beginning of Pesach) the counting of the Omer begins. Seven full weeks are counted, culminating in the festival of Shavuot. In this period, during which we count each and every day, we prepare ourselves spiritually for the giving of the Torah, but we also prepare ourselves for the concept of Yom Tov, building our relationships with one another. At this stage of the narrative the Torah dictates the laws of mandatory gifts to the poor. It is noteworthy that interpersonal Mitzvot are expressed during this time, urging us to strengthen our relationships with one another. After seven weeks of counting we reach Shavuot. On Shavuot we celebrate not only as a nation united by a common goal, as we did on Pesach, but as a nation standing together, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, having developed the ability to feel connected not only to God but also to one another. The festival itself further enables this connection, encouraging us to dine together, to prepare food together, to share with one another and enjoy the company we provide each other.
Our peoplehood is thus predicated on the bond created by Mitzvot. It is based on our ability to relate with one another, a skill developed through our observance of those Mitzvot which strengthen interpersonal ties. It is not based on a common lineage and it is not based on a common land or nationality. Ruth was able to integrate seamlessly as a convert to the people of Israel because she accepted those same Mitzvot and through them developed a relationship with God and with her fellow religionists. Although she was new on the scene, lacking roots in the land and lacking common ancestry, Ruth was able to become the paradigm of a righteous convert, becoming one with the people through her observance of Mitzvot.
Our liturgy expresses gratitude daily for the privilege of having Mitzvot to fulfil. Some of these expressions may sound shocking and even offensive to us if we are not familiar with the context. For instance we thank God every morning that we were not born as gentiles. The uneducated might be taken aback by such a sentiment. Not only is it not PC, it suggests a racial classification. But we understand very well there is nothing wrong with being a gentile. One difference between a Jew and a gentile, however, is that the gentile is bound only by the seven categories of Mitzvot, known as the Noahide laws. The Jew, on the other hand, is obligated in 613 Biblical commandments and myriad supplements of Rabbinic origin. For this we express gratitude. We acknowledge the benefit of being a Jew, specifically because we are harnessed with many more obligations than the gentile, more opportunities to strengthen these important relationships.
We also express gratitude for not being slaves. While a slave to a Jewish family (during the time that such an institution existed under a Jewish theocracy) was obligated in most Mitzvot of the Torah, he was exempt from a number of them. We express gratitude for being free, because our freedom generates greater obligations, thereby expanding our opportunities for growth in these important relationships. Finally, In this context men express gratitude for not being born a woman. Although Judaism has never attributed superiority or inferiority based on gender, the Torah differs slightly in its obligations of men and women, with Jewish men obligated in several Mitzvot in which Jewish women are exempt. When we appreciate the power of a Mitzvah as a vehicle for growth, when we understand the gift that the burden of a Mitzvah endows us with, we understand why even a few extra Mitzvot should drive a person to recite a blessing of gratitude. Ruth was able, through the Mitzvot, to achieve parity with the Jew of the most illustrious lineage because she had access to the same tools, she observed the same Mitzvot.When she accepted the Torah she was able to become a full member of the nation immediately through the power of Mitzvot.