At first Shavuot (שָׁבֻעֹת = weeks) marked the end of the seven-week barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest.1 Then it became one of the three annual pilgrimage-festivals in Jerusalem, the day to bring gifts of first fruits to the temple, and it came on fiftieth day after Passover/Pesach.2 After the fall of the second temple, the rabbis decided that day was the anniversary of God’s revelation and transmission of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
This year Shavuot begins at sunset on Sunday, May 16. Some Jews will stay up all night studying Torah—including the book of Ruth,3 which touches on both the barley harvest and the acceptance of the Torah. The celebration at the end of the barley harvest is the night when Ruth risks everything.4 She also embraces the religion transmitted at Mount Sinai; she leaves her own land, Moab, to follow her mother-in-law Naomi, saying:
“Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay; your people will be my people; and your god will be my god.” (Ruth 1:16)
Although Naomi discourages her, and the Israelites do not welcome her at first, Ruth’s embrace of her new life is as wholehearted as her attachment to Naomi.
During the barley harvest, she feeds herself and her mother-in-law by gleaning in the field of kind landowner named Boaz. Naomi identifies Boaz as a potential “redeemer”, a male relative who can fulfill two duties for a widow: buying back her deceased husband’s land, and giving her a son in her deceased husband’s name, thereby giving her a place in his family.5
But although Boaz is generous toward Ruth in the barley field, it does not occur to him that he could do more for her and his kinswoman Naomi. He may be holding back because he expects Ruth to marry one of the younger men in the town; later in the story, he praises her for not going after them.6
So when the barley harvest ends, Naomi comes up with an audacious scheme. She tells Ruth to hide near the threshing floor and wait until Boaz has feasted, drunk, and dozed off.
“Then go over and uncover his ‘feet’ and lie down. And he himself will tell you what to do.” And [Ruth] said to her: “Kol that you say to me I will do.” (Ruth 3:4-5)
kol (כֹּל) = all, everything, whatever, anything.
Ruth is risking her whole future on Naomi’s desperate plan. Boaz could treat her as a prostitute rather than an honorable woman. Or he might cry out in surprise when he wakes up and finds her, and then the other men sleeping on the threshing floor would awaken and discover her in a compromising position.
But Ruth has attached herself to Naomi so completely that she does exactly what her mother-in-law says—and more. When Boaz wakes at midnight, startled, he asks (presumably in a whisper) “Who are you?”
And she said: “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wing over your servant, because you are a redeemer.” (Ruth 3:10)
Now she is telling Boaz what to do. He is rich and powerful in his community; she is an impoverished foreigner, dependent on his good will. But she does everything she can to carry out Naomi’s plan successfully.
Ruth courageously follows all of Naomi’s instructions and more because she has committed herself completely to her mother-in-law.
Back in the book of Genesis, Abraham is not nearly as committed to his wife, Sarah. When she tells him to have a child with her slave-woman, Hagar, he goes along with her request, but disregards the reason she gives.
And Sarah said to Abraham: “Hey, please, God has kept me from bearing a child. Please come into my slave-woman; perhaps I will be built up through her.” And Abraham heeded Sarah’s voice. (Genesis 16:2)
Sarah politely informs him that she wants a child, even if she must adopt the child of her husband and her slave, Hagar. Abraham heeds her request long enough to get Hagar pregnant, but by the time Sarah complains that Hagar is belittling her, he has lost interest. Instead of intervening to put Sarah’s adoption plan back on track, he merely says:
“Hey, your slave-woman is in your hand. Do to her what is good in your eyes.” (Genesis 16:6)
Sarah abuses Hagar, and Hagar runs away and has a conversation with God. Although she returns to Abraham’s camp, her newborn baby is not placed in Sarah’s lap to signify adoption.7 The boy is named Ishmael—not by Sarah, but by God and then Abraham.
Abraham loves his son.8 But when Ishmael is an adolescent Sarah gives birth to her own son, Isaac. She tells her husband to cast out Ishmael, along with Hagar.
The thing was very bad in Abraham’s eyes, on account of his son. And God said to Abraham: “Don’t let it be bad in your eyes concerning the young man or concerning your slave-woman. Kol that Sarah says to you, heed her voice, because through Yitzchak descendants will be called by your [name]. And also the son of the slave-woman I will make a nation [out of him], since he is your seed.” (Genesis 21:11-13)
Only when God tells him to do whatever Sarah says does Abraham send away Ishmael and his mother.
And Abraham got up early in the morning, and he took bread and a skin of water and he gave them to Hagar, placed them on her shoulder and the boy[’s], and he sent her away … (Genesis 21:14)
Abraham is a rich man; he could easily afford to give Hagar and Ishmael a donkey or two loaded with provisions and trade goods. And for all he knows, Sarah would not object; she says she does not want Ishmael to inherit Abraham’s estate, but she does not say anything about parting gifts.
Yet Abraham sends off his older son and his concubine with only bread and a single skin of water. They get lost in the desert, the water runs out, and Ishmael is about to die of dehydration when God sends an angel to intervene.9
Abraham can safely assume Ishmael will live long enough to have at least one son, since God promises to “make a nation” out of him. But even if he is not risking Ishmael’s life, Abraham is still responsible for making Ishmael and his mother suffer from thirst and agony in the desert. His neglect is unnecessary and unethical.
Why is he so mean? Abraham is not wholehearted about either Ishmael or Sarah. He obeys God by doing what Sarah says, but he does it grudgingly and badly. Perhaps he closes his heart in order to obey Sarah, and then his heart remains closed. He no longer wants to love Ishmael.
Ruth, on the other hand, is so wholehearted in her attachment to Naomi that her heart is open to Boaz as well.
Naomi introduced her threshing floor scheme by saying:
“My daughter, should I not seek for you a tranquil place where it will be good for you?” (Ruth 3:1)
She wants Ruth to have a better life. But Ruth knows that Boaz is kind-hearted enough so that if he redeems her and gives her a tranquil place in his home, he will not leave Naomi out in the cold. For Naomi’s sake, Ruth makes what amounts to an offer of marriage to Boaz.
When she reminds him that he is a potential redeemer, Boaz says:
“And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. Kol that you say to me I will do for you.” (Ruth 3:11)
Like Ruth, Boaz does exactly what he is told, and more. He helps her sneak away from the threshing floor before dawn, and sends her back to Naomi with a gift of threshed barley. In the morning, in order to make sure nobody can question his acting as the redeemer, Boaz sits with the other elders in the city gate and hails the only relative of Naomi’s who is closer to her on the family tree. The other elders serve as witnesses that the other man refuses to be the redeemer, and that Boaz is now acquiring the land and Ruth.
Boaz opens his heart to Ruth and Naomi, and takes extra steps to make sure his marriage to Ruth is legal and recognized by the whole community, even though she is a Moabite. The book ends with Boaz and Ruth’s newborn son sitting on Naomi’s lap. Naomi has become his adoptive mother, the role Sarah wanted but never got.
In the book of Genesis, Abraham’s half-hearted compliance with Sarah’s requests signals his shrinking love for both Sarah and Ishmael, and foreshadows his willingness to sacrifice Isaac without a protest.10 In the book of Ruth, Ruth does everything Naomi says and more, while Boaz does everything Ruth says and more. The result is a tranquil household in which all three adults are loving and generous.
May we all learn to be as open-hearted as Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz became.
- For seven weeks after Passover we count the omer (עֺמֶר), a measure of barley. Click here to see my post: Omer: Counting 49.
- Numbers 28:26-31 (the maftir reading for both days of Shavuot) and Deuteronomy 16:9-12, 16:16-17 (part of the Torah reading for the second day of Shavuot).
- The rabbis of the first millennium C.E. assigned a biblical book to reach on each of the pilgrimage-festivals: The Song of Songs on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, and Ecclesiastes on Sukkot.
- Ruth 3:1-18.
- For more on the role of a redeemer, see Deuteronomy 25:5-6 and Genesis 38:6-26, or my post Yitro & Vayeishev: Fathers-in-Law.
- Ruth 3:10.
- The adoptive parent holds the infant on his or her knees as part of the adoption ritual in Genesis 30:3-13 and Genesis 48:5 and 48:12.
- Genesis 17:18-21.
- Genesis 21:14-17.
- Genesis 22:1-13.