Your People Shall Be My People: Thoughts on Shavuot

This Dvar Torah was written by Dr. Bella Tendler Krieger, CAJE’s Director of Adult Learning and Growth. Join her for a summer of learning and an exciting roster of courses! Visit CAJEADULTLEARNING.ORG

Photo by Paz Arando on Unsplash

This upcoming Tuesday evening, we will welcome the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot is the second of Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals, the Shalosh Regalim, which include Pessach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In ancient Israel, all three were agricultural festivals celebrated by pilgrimages to Jerusalem, feasts, thanksgiving sacrifices, and offerings of bikkurim (first fruits) to the Temple.


These types of agricultural festivals were not unique to the Israelites and were celebrated by most agrarian societies of the ancient world. When a successful agricultural season meant the difference between survival and starvation, a good harvest was a major cause for joy. The innovation that Judaism brought to these festivals was to link them to historical events in the founding of the Israelite nation. Pessach was not merely the celebration of the barley harvest, but it also marked the exodus of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage. Shavuot was not merely the wheat harvest; it commemorated the granting of the Torah at Mt Sinai. Sukkot was not merely about the fruit harvest, it celebrated God’s forty-year sustenance of His people in the desert.


The addition of these narratives to the agricultural calendar represented a major theological innovation in the ancient world. God was not merely nature. God was more than the impersonal force that made the sun shine, the rain fall, and the earth bring forth grain. God intervenes in history. If He so wills, He can break the rules of nature to produce miracles for His chosen people. He punishes their oppressors in Egypt with devastating plagues; He splits the sea when they need to flee; He reveals his will through spectacular revelation; and He sustains his people with manna from heaven, water from rocks, and a sacred cloud for divine shelter. The Shalosh Regalim reminded the Israelites that God is actively involved in the nation’s destiny and that their successes and failures (both agricultural and historical) depend on their relationship with Him.


Shavuot, which literally means “weeks,” commemorates both the wheat harvest and the theophany at Sinai. It is called “The Festival of Weeks” because the bible never assigns it a precise date, but instead instructs that it should be celebrated seven weeks after the Passover barley offering. The seven-week interval between these two festivals, known as the Omer, traces the maturation of the wheat crop and mimics the maturation of the Israelite people from a band of fleeing slaves (on Pessach) to the birth of a nation worthy of a covenant with God (on Shavuot). The juxtaposition of these concepts drives home the notion that Torah, like wheat, is essential for human sustenance. Torah nourishes the soul just as wheat feeds the body.


As would be expected from a holiday dedicated to the revelation at Sinai, the Torah portion read on this holiday describes the giving of the Ten Commandments. The biblical description of this event is vivid and dramatic: the rugged Sinai desert, the mountain cloaked in smoke, the earth trembling, horns blaring, thunder crashing, and God’s voice breaching the divide between heaven and earth. There is no more theatrical setting in the Bible and the rabbis have a field day elaborating on this event through midrash. In fact, so essential is this drama to Jewish identity, that tradition insists that all Jewish souls, even those of future converts, were present at Sinai so as to have this incredible theophany imprinted on their hearts.


Alongside this great drama, it is customary to recite the Book of Ruth, which reads as a quaint rural romance between Ruth, a Moabite convert to Judaism, and Boaz, her mother-in-law’s elderly Israelite relative. The contrast between these biblical texts could not be starker. From fireworks and the booming voice of God, we find ourselves in fields and threshing floors, collecting grain and sharing water with field hands.


There are traditional explanations for this juxtaposition. Firstly, the story of Ruth is set during the grain harvest, which is the agricultural season celebrated on Shavuot. There is also the factor of Ruth’s conversion. In the beginning of the narrative, the recently widowed Ruth is encouraged by her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, to return to her Moabite people and gods. Her response is one of the most poignant expressions of love and loyalty in the entire bible and becomes as a touchstone of later Jewish conversion. She says:


Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you. (Ruth 1:16-17)


Thus, Ruth’s conversion echoes the conversion of the entire Israelite People at Sinai. “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do,” (Exodus 19:8) they declared in acceptance of God’s Law. This mirroring is a second explanation given for reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot.


I have always been fascinated Ruth’s proclamation, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” In her desperate plea to stay with Naomi, Ruth’s commitment to peoplehood comes first and God comes second. This is precisely the opposite of the Ten Commandments, which open with the instruction “I am the Lord your God… You shall have no Gods other than me” before turning in the last few commandments to perfunctory rules for peoplehood: don’t murder, commit adultery, steal etc.


Is this reversal significant? Are the texts saying something about the relative primacy of theology versus peoplehood? I believe they are. By assigning both these texts to the Shavuot liturgy, the rabbis were telling us that there are times to temper our theology in favor of peoplehood. There are times when the unity of the Jewish people is more important than theological truth claims. “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”


This idea is particularly important right now as the Jewish people struggle with existential threats in Israel and deep concerns over our social standing here in the United States. At a time like this, we need to foreground our commitment to Jewish peoplehood, to pluralism, to the things that unite us rather than divide us. Theology, absolute truths, all those non-negotiables we can call “God” must come second.


For the last few weeks, in preparation for my new role as director of adult learning at CAJE, I’ve been driving around Miami-Dade meeting with congregational rabbis and Jewish educators across cultural and denominational lines exploring ways in which we can collaborate. One thing I noticed was that despite their differences in worship and dogma, despite the distinct layouts of their sanctuaries, all were united in their concern over the Jewish people. Tragedy and stress have reminded us that we are one people, a reality we often forget in our theological disputations. I hope that we can hold on to this realization, even after these crises pass, as it is one of the few benefits we have gleaned from these troubling times.


May we learn together, grow together, and remember how to be a people together!


May our efforts yield a fruitful harvest!


Chag Shavuot Sameach!

Shabbat Shalom