Many reasons are given for the minhag of reading Megillas Rus on Shavuos. One is that the focal point of the story took place at the time of the wheat harvest, and revolves around the obligation of giving matnas aniyim: gifts to the poor. Additionally, it records the genealogy of David HaMelech, who was born and died on Shavuos. Furthermore, it encapsulates the idea of total acceptance of the Torah. Rus committed herself to geirus - conversion - and all that it entailed, much the same as we had done at Har Sinai centuries earlier.
However, the Yalkut Shimoni gives a different reason.
And what connection does (the Megilla of) Rus have with Shavuos, that it is read on Shavuos at the time of the Giving of the Torah? To teach you that Torah was only given through suffering and impoverishment.1
Seemingly, this contradicts the words of the Gemara in Pesachim:
R' Elazar said: Everyone agrees that on Shavuos one is required to observe the Yom Tov with feasting as well. Why? Because the Torah was given on that day.2
Rashi explains, "One should rejoice with eating and drinking to show that this day is welcomed and desired by the Bnei Yisrael for the Torah was given on that day."
So which one is it? Do we celebrate with feasting and luxuriate in pleasurable festivities on Shavuos, or do we recall "suffering and impoverishment"?
In attempting to reconcile these apparently contradictory themes let us analyze the words of Chazal on Megillas Rus.
After relating the famine in Eretz Yisrael, and the subsequent departure of Elimelech with his whole family to Moav, followed by the deaths of Elimelech, Machlon and Chilyon there, the Megilla relates Naomi's return to Beis Lechem together with her converted daughter-in-law Rus in impoverished and tragic circumstances. The Megilla then begins its second chapter by introducing us to the central figure who was to prove a saviour to Rus and Naomi: Boaz. "Naomi had a relative through her husband a man of substance, from the family of Elimelech, named Boaz."3
Rashi there quotes the Gemara in Bava Basra that Elimelech, Naomi's husband, had three brothers: Salmon, the father of Boaz, Ploni Almoni, the anonymously named next of kin who had first rights to do yibum with Rus, and Naomi's father. Their father was the famous Nachshon Ben Aminadav. But, says Rashi, "The merit of their father did not help them when they left Eretz Yisrael (for Moav)." It seems that the death of Elimelech and his sons is linked to their departure from Eretz Yisrael.
The Gemara in Bava Basra states clearly:
Rav Shimon Bar Yochai used to say, "Elimelech, Machlon and Chilyon were among the greatest men of their generation and provided for their generation. Why were they punished? Because they left Eretz Yisrael for Chutz La'a'etz."4
What is puzzling, however, is that the Rambam states categorically that in times of severe famine one is justified in leaving Eretz Yisrael. "Although it is permitted to leave," he states, "this is not the way of devout people, because Machlon and Chilyon were Gedolei Hador and (only) left (Eretz Yisrael) because of the great difficulties and were punished by death before Hashem."5
Why was their punishment so severe? Were they not justified in providing for their families by moving to Moav, as the Rambam states one is halachically justified to do?
Herein lies a fascinating insight into a fundamental principle of the Torah.
Suffering, difficulty, and challenges in life all have a reason, and can and must lead to a constructive outcome. Far from being unnecessary and unwanted hindrances in a person's life, their real purpose is to serve as indispensable stepping stones on the path of spiritual progress and self-betterment. Allow me to explain:
The Gemara in Berachos states,
Rav Shimon Bar Yochai says, "Three wonderful gifts Hakadosh Boruch Hu gave to Yisrael and all of them are given only with suffering and they are Torah, Eretz Yisrael and Olam Haba.6
The Maharal explains that spiritual progress is hampered by, and is in direct opposition to physical indulgence.7 The advancement of the one, therefore, inevitably involves the weakening of the other. I once heard that the late Mashgiach of Gateshead Yeshiva, Rabbi Moshe Schwab zt"l, used to say, "Mashiv haruchniyos u'morid hagashmiyus": make the spirit "blow" and grow by reducing one's intake of gashmiyus, the physical pleasures of the world.8
The Maharal continues and says that the three things mentioned in the Gemara, namely Torah, Eretz Yisrael and Olam Haba each represent different levels of holiness and spiritual achievement. Eretz Yisrael is the most sanctified place on earth. Torah, which gives each individual the ability to lead his life governed by intellect and not instinct, empowering the soul to control and harness the bodily desires, is a higher level. Olam Haba, the highest level of spiritual existence, is where the soul has been stripped of its baser bodily physical limitations, is the very zenith of our accomplishments.
Says Maharal, to attain each of these levels, a bit of physical deprivation and material hardship is required. The first sign of illness is the loss of appetite. A modicum of suffering, however minor, serves to weaken the grip of the physical evil inclination, reduce a person's desires, and somewhat decreases the arrogance and self-assuredness of the individual. Thus the soul is more empowered and able to elevate the whole person to that extra level.
The Ben Ish Chai gives an additional perspective.9 He writes that besides its purely spiritual benefits, Eretz Yisrael is a land of unlimited physical beauty and bounty. One could be misled into striving to attain Eretz Yisrael to attain its material benefits. For this reason yisurin - a degree of hardship - is required to ensure our motivation remains pure. Are we interested in immersing ourselves in the Arizals Mikvah or do we prefer water-skiing in Eilat? If we are determined to make the effort and show mesirus nefesh for Eretz Yisrael despite the challenges involved, then we are clearly focused on the kedushas ha'aretz, the holiness and spiritual wealth of the Land.
With Torah learning too, the same challenge arises. Are we motivated in our pursuit of Torah merely by its intellectual depth and clarity, its wisdom and "cool" insights for life? Or is our motivation to learn Torah the fact that it is the Divine Truth and every last letter is part of Hashem's Holy Word? A little bit of discomfort, a few unforeseen difficulties and one's response quickly identifies the person's true motivations.
So, too, with our approach to our Eternal life in Olam Haba. Is our fulfillment of mitzvos merely in order to be rewarded at the end, solely determined by the dividends it will pay, thus relegating our actions to mere investments in our futures? Or are we pre-occupied in the pursuit of spiritual perfection in performing Hashem's will?
When everything comes easily, we are not forced to confront our priorities and make actual choices. We are liable to sail along merrily on life's currents without ever making those vital decisions and commitments. When the going gets tough, however, we have to show character and resolve. We have to show we are prepared to make some sacrifices. Then we can truly merit the "three wonderful gifts".
In his book Encounters, the late R' Aryeh Kaplan zt"l, gives a dramatic personal illustration of how he was shaken out of his natural human complacency when as a young man in his twenties he consulted a doctor friend about pain he had been having in his chest:
"He gave me a complete physical examination and called me into his office. His face was quite grim and his voice was solemn. It was then that he told me that I was going to die.
"My face turned white and my heart began to pound hard. That old cliché entered my mind, "This is it!" My thoughts fled before his awesome words: "Mr. Kaplan, you are going to die."
"The doctor paused. Then, after a moment, he added, "Yes, you are going to die, fifty or sixty years from now. You're in perfect physical condition. A little Maalox for the stomach might help, though."
"I went home, happy and relieved that the doctor had found nothing to be concerned about. But the incident gnawed at me. True my doctor had a morbid sense of humour, and for a few seconds I had been terrified, more frightened than ever in my life. But why, afterwards, should I have been so upset? After all I know that I am mortal!"
Rabbi Kaplan's story poignantly illustrates how yisurim, discomfort or even suffering, force us stop to think.
Maybe this then is the message of the Gemara in Bava Basra. Machlon and Chilyon were grandsons, on both sides, of Nachshon Ben Aminadav, the famous tzaddik who was prepared to sacrifice his very life if necessary in fulfilling Hashem's command to the Bnei Yisrael to travel straight into the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. Chazal say the waters had engulfed his body to his nostrils, and he still did not flinch. He continued. Then, and only then, did the waters split.
Nachshon ben Aminadav was thus the ultimate symbol of mesirus nefesh: self-sacrifice for Hashem. It was this spirit, which, on their level was found to be lacking from Machlon and Chilyon. True, halachically, they may have been justified in leaving Eretz Yisrael. But by showing what, on their level, was a lack of determination to remain in Eretz Yisrael, by not being prepared to endure hardship and difficulty to remain in our Land, in such stark contrast to the example set for them by their grandfather Nachshon, they broke the spirit of the nation. It is for this reason that they were so harshly punished.
It is no coincidence that R' Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the statement about enduring suffering in the Gemara in Berachos is also the author of the statement in Bava Basra attributing the death of Machlon and Chilyon to their departure from Eretz Yisrael.
Conversely, the most powerful antidote to the bitter pill of despair and hopelessness that the Bnei Yisrael felt at that time was the attitude of Rus. She was a Moabite princess, who had given up the wealth, opulence, and luxury of her father's home, turned her back on his idol and idle lifestyle to live as an impoverished, tragedy-stricken widow. And in Eretz Yisrael, as a proud Jewess!
Rus, through her personal example, lifted the spirits and rejuvenated the aspirations of the nation. It is no wonder that she was to become the great- grandmother of David HaMelech, who raised the spiritual excitement of the nation to the point that we were worthy of a Beis Hamikdash. The life's message of Rus, who overcame every hurdle and endured such misery and suffering and yet remained steadfast in her determination to accept the Torah and proclaim her individual "na'aseh v'nishma", was the source of David HaMelech's inspiration.
Bearing this in mind, perhaps we can reconcile the apparent contradiction of feasting of Shavuos on the one hand, and the story of Rus's impoverishment and suffering on the other. It was precisely this attitude, personified by the suffering and ultimate triumph of Rus, which guaranteed the survival of Torah and our existence as a nation to this day. We celebrate that spirit.
I read an incredible incident in a book entitled The Living Memorial: The World That Was Poland, which captures that spirit perfectly. Related by Reb Yosef Friedenson it serves as an amazing testimony to the greatness of the Am HaTorah:
One Shemini Atzeres, we were in the smithy shop, (in the Starachowice concentration camp), but we had not been assigned any work to do. Since it was Yom Tov we were singing the niggun, "ein adir kaHashem……..ein baruch k'ben Amram (there is none as powerful as Hashem…..there is none as blessed as [Moshe] the son of Amram). This is a traditional niggun that is usually sung when we dance with the Torah on Simchas Torah.
Anyway, we were singing the part of this niggun that states "ein zichiyah kaTorah…….ein chachamehah k'Yisrael" (There is no merit like the Torah it [the Torah] has not men of wisdom like Israel) when Pape (the camp commandant) came into the room. He looked at us singing and said, "What are you singing? Do you have it so good that you can sing? Tell me, what are you singing?"
We explained the entire song that we were singing and when we came to the part there are no men of wisdom like the scholars of the Torah he derisively exclaimed, "Are you Jews so wise…do you still believe in this?"
There was a boy of seventeen or eighteen, just a Jewish boy, not even from our religious group and he jumped up and said in German, "I believe!" Pape began asking each of us in turn if we also believed in this. You have to understand that we were in a great mood of defiance, and that we were not afraid of him, because we know he was good to us. Everyone said "Yes!"
Pape looked at us and excitedly gestured with both arms while exclaiming, "I don't know how the Fuhrer will ever get rid of you!' and he walked away. It was an incredible moment of pride and faith.
How right he was and how fortunate we are today to be able to learn Torah. "Ein zechiyeh kaTorah v'ein Chachamehah keYisrael!"
1 Yalkut Rus 596, brought in Magen Avraham, Orach Chayim, 490.
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