The holiday of Shavuos/Pentecost falls on May 29 in 2009. Pentecost marks the giving of the Law of Moses on Mount Sinai. But Shavuos was also a day for people to give, too. On that day the Jewish people were to bring an offering of first fruits to the Lord. Along with the command for the offering, the Bible lists a seemingly unrelated command.
And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the LORD your God. (Lev 24:21-22)
The command to leave part of the harvest in the field seems out of place here. Yet, it is appropriate because this is a holiday of giving. God gives to man. Man gives to God. And, because of this command, man gives to man. It is because of this latter command that the book of Ruth is read in synagogues on Shavuos.
Tradition says Ruth was a princess of Moab. She left her family, her wealth, her gods in order to care for an elderly mother-in-law who was going home to Bethlehem. She could have pointed out that in Moab Naomi would have all the luxuries afforded to the mother-in-law of a daughter of the king. And yet, with apparently no second thoughts, she leaves a life of security for the unknown of a life of two widows at a time when widowhood without family was almost a death sentence.
At harvest-time, gleaning in the fields was the ancient equivalent of the modern soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Boaz, in whose fields Ruth begged, knew of her poor condition. His generosity (and possibly her beauty) caused him to order his reapers to leave her a little extra. On the first day she brought home an ephah of barley. Naomi greeted this with wonder. This was a treasure for women as poor as they.
If Ruth was indeed a Moabite princess, how often as she stooped to pick up a stray stalk of barley she must have thought about what she had given up. Did she remember dainties in the palace? Did she remember more than one meal a day? Did she, perhaps even once, wonder why she had married an Israelite instead of one of the Moabite lords? If such thoughts went through her mind it would only be natural. Ruth was virtually homeless, in an even greater sense than many who are homeless today. She had no income in a land that was not her home. She was certainly, in the words of the law, “the poor, and the stranger.”
Why is Megillat Rus read on Shavuos? There has to be more than a mere coincidence of her occupation and the law of Pentecost. The book is read not as an oddity, but as encouragement. Ruth does not remain poor. She marries a rich man. She becomes the great-grandmother of the greatest king of Israel. The book then becomes an encouragement to the poor, but also an encouragement to help the poor. Just as Boaz made sure to help the helpless, and especially the foreigner who was poor, so we should help those who are less fortunate. Most of us do not have fields, and those that do usually don’t harvest by hand anymore. But there are many other ways to help the homeless and helpless. After all, God gives to us when we are helpless. Can we not think of ways to give to others this Shavuos?