Every Yom Tov has its sights, sounds and smells. Sukkos has the pleasing aroma of the Dalet Minim and the warmth and contentment of the sukkah. Pesach has the taste of wine and crisp matzos, the scent of chrein being chopped, and the fumes of chometz being burnt. Shavuos carries strains of Akdamus’ moving tones, milchigs, flowers and the poignant pesukim of Megillas Rus. The kriah has us pause to reflect on Rus and her journey from the heights of royalty to the depths of despair, back to the pinnacle as the mother of malchus.
In the diaspora, Shavuos is a two-day Yom Tov and Rus is read on the second day, when most are well-rested. In Eretz Yisroel, however, Shavuos is only one day, and the reading of Megillas Rus takes place during the traditional vosikin minyan at the end of a long night of learning Torah. Most people are exhausted by then. At Yeshivas Mir, the legendary Yerushalayimer baal kriah, Reb Yechiel, reads Megillas Rus slowly and carefully. At times, his voice is choked with tears, as the pesukim speak of the lows. There is anticipation in his voice as Rus manages to maintain her dignity and refinement even amidst her misery. In his voice, you hear the joy at her ultimate triumph.
Some people at the Mir used to complain about the length of the kriah. At the end of such a long, wearying night, they were eager for some rest. The rosh yeshiva, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, cherished the baal kriah and, in particular, his reading of Rus. The rosh yeshiva felt that this tale is a most fitting close to the avodah of Shavuos night. Therefore, the extra few minutes it took to lain Megillas Rus with heart were not to be perceived as an inconvenience, for they enhanced the tale central to the theme of Shavuos.
Perhaps we might add an insight to the many reasons offered for why we lain this story on Shavuos.
We contemplate the situation of Elimelech, Na’ami and their children. They were wealthy and prestigious, leaders of their people. When economic circumstances in Eretz Yisroel worsened and they were faced with many requests for help, they opted to leave.
They had it all, but they were lacking one thing: rachmonus.
Because they didn’t emulate their Creator – mah Hu rachum, af atoh rachum – and their hearts and fists were shut tight, they lost everything. They closed their ears to the Torah’s mandate of vehechezakta bo. They thus turned their backs on the flow of blessing and became destitute.
Theirs was a tale of riches to rags, prominence to anonymity and anguish.
Contrast that with the account of Rus. A giyores, driven by her pure heart to join Klal Yisroel, she was widowed and poor. She was forced to beg for food.
She lost it all, but she retained her middos, refinement and modesty.
And she ended up with everything.
The grains that she gathered in the fields of Boaz were the seeds of her own success, as she ultimately married him and gave birth to the lineage of Dovid Hamelech and Moshiach.
A nation of slaves was rushed out of Mitzrayim, yet they were blessed b’rechush gadol. They stood at Har Sinai much like Rus stood before Boaz, dedicated and committed to live with Hashem and His Torah. Like her, they had it all.
They, too, in the depths of their affliction, when it appeared that they had nothing, had everything. They held fast to their middos, as Chazal say, “Lo shinu es shemom, lo shinu es leshonam, lo shinu es malbushom,.” They adapted to a life of servitude and endured, because they put much effort into maintaining their identifying characteristics. This is reinforced by the Haggadah Shel Pesach, which states, “Vayehi shom legoy – melameid shehoyu metzuyonim shom.” Their middos sustained them.
During the hot summer of 1959, a woman crossing a street in Bnei Brak was struck by a car and killed. A large crowd immediately gathered. On her Teudat Zahut, the identifying papers that every Israeli carries at all times, were her name and address in the city of Cholon. Someone was dispatched to notify the woman’s family of her tragic fate.
In the meantime, activists moved the body to a cool room to maintain and protect kavod hameis. The police arrived as well, eager to take the body for an autopsy.
It was a time of great friction between the Torah camp and the chilonim in Eretz Yisroel. It seemed like every hospital had a pathology department anxious to study the bodies of the deceased. One of the most prominent physicians in the country had made headlines by announcing, “To bury a complete body is a waste: cheating medical science.”
When the messengers returned from Cholon with the news that the woman had lived alone, a poor immigrant with neither family nor friends, rabbonim ruled that she was a meis mitzvah. A huge crowd of talmidei chachomim formed, reciting Tehillim around the body.
The police called for reinforcements, making clear their intention to seize the body. The locals responded in kind, drawing a huge crowd of bochurim, who encircled the meis and said Tehillim. Once the woman had a status of meis mitzvah, they insisted, she belonged to all of them. They were the next of kin and they would not let her go.
For a few hours, it seemed like a war was imminent, but, eventually, the policemen realized that it was a losing battle and they left. The unknown woman was prepared for burial and thousands of mourners accompanied her through Bnei Brak, stopping near each shul to recite Kaddish.
A resourceful young man decided to follow up on the story and find out the woman’s background. There had to be something in the history of this anonymous individual that could explain why she had merited such an impressive kavod acharon. The man discovered that she came from the town of Kossova, birthplace of the Chazon Ish, and his sister, who married Rav Yisroel Yaakov Kanievsky – the Steipler Gaon. Rav Chaim Kanievsky asked his mother if she remembered the woman. Rebbetzin Kanievsky recalled that she came from a family that had no connection with Yiddishkeit and didn’t even fast on Yom Kippur. They had been completely irreligious.
The curious talmid chochom continued his investigation and found an old woman who had arrived in Israel from Poland following the Holocaust. She told him that she remembered the woman from the war-time ghetto, where they had lived together in a tiny apartment. She recalled that the woman spent the dark days searching out bodies of Yidden who had died, either of starvation or by the Nazi bullet, and brought them to kever Yisroel.
The meis mitzvah who merited the levayah and kevurah of a tzadeikes earned it through her acts of greatness.
Imagine a Polish war survivor living in poverty in Cholon with no acquaintances or friends. She has nothing. She is struck down by a car and killed. What a tragedy!
And then, thousands come out and say Tehillim, recite Kaddish, and accompany her body. She has everything.
She performed chessed shel emes, kindness that endures, and it endured for her.
She lived with nothing, yet died with everything.
In our times, along with the assault on decency and values; middos, refinement, tznius, modesty and gentleness are seen as archaic. The media and the surrounding culture condition people to respect those who are “hip” and “out there.” Arrogance and intemperance are hailed as virtues.
We have to remember why we were created and what our mission is. We are on the brink of welcoming Moshiach, but the only way we can merit his arrival is if we conduct ourselves as our forefathers in Mitzrayim did, holding steadfast to our core values and character traits that make us great.
We must not fall prey to the vagaries of the moment. Even as we build and improve our yeshivos, mosdos and organizations, we must remain cognizant of our goals. With caring and love, we must ensure that we do not dilute that which makes us great or take refuge in the land of easy excuses for inaction. We must treat each child as if he were our own and treat our own as we wish to be treated ourselves. In good times and in those of difficulty, we should never give up hope and never turn to hatred and rancor.
Human excellence should be our goal and motivator in all we do. The way we conduct ourselves, with middos tovos, is the prerequisite for the Torah. Those values ought to govern the language we speak and the way we act, as well as what lies unspoken but is felt in our hearts and minds.
Rav Chaim Vital famously asks why, if good middos are so important, there is no specific commandant in the Torah to behave properly. He answers that the Torah was only given to baalei middos, those who display a tzelem Elokim. Middos are the hakdamah, the prerequisite, making one worthy of the Torah.
This, explains the Maharal, is what is meant by “Atem kruyin adam.” Adam Harishon embodied the properties of tzelem Elokim, as the Mishnah says, “Choviv adam shenivra betzelem.” However, when he sinned, Adam fell from the lofty plateau. Tzuras ha’adam had been defiled.
Then, at Mattan Torah, man returned to those original heights of tzelem Elokim. Thus, Chazal state that only you, Yisroel, are referred to as adam, because only you, Yisroel, protect and project the tzelem Elokim, once you have received the Torah.
The refinement of Rus led her to return to the peak. Thus, we read her story on the day we commemorate the reintroduction of Heavenly dimensions to human beings. On this day, as a people, we rose to our original heights. On this day, every individual has the potential to raise themselves in Hashem’s image.
Perhaps, with this understanding, we can glean insight into another of the mitzvos hayom. Shavuos is the day upon which Jews would bring the korban of Bikkurim. After months of toiling in his orchard, a Jew reaps the first fruits of his harvest and sets off for Yerushalayim. When he arrives there, he meets up with a kohein and approaches the mizbei’ach in the Bais Hamikdosh to liturgically recall the trials Yaakov Avinu endured, followed by the account of our forefathers’ suffering in Mitzrayim.
He then relates how Hashem rescued us with scores of miracles and led us to the Promised Land, which flows with milk and honey.
Following that climactic event, the Jew presents the first fruits of his labors and returns home. He is then ready for the next part of the mitzvah, “Vesomachta bechol hatov,” the obligation to rejoice “with all the goodness Hashem, your G-d, has given you and your household.”
The obligation to be thankful for the blessings Hashem has bestowed upon us – and to contrast that goodness with the difficult time that preceded it – appears to be the key to true happiness.
Once again, we see this interface: The Jew brings a single fruit, seemingly nothing, yet it’s symbolic of Hashem’s goodness, which is everything. Bechol hatov.
We have to constantly scrutinize our actions, always aiming to improve. We begin by stating, “Arami oveid avi,” and recalling the slavery in Mitzrayim and times when it appeared that we had nothing. Then we recall Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s mercy and kindness in accepting our prayers and rescuing us from those awful situations.
A man looks out at his orchard through the Winter, viewing his barren trees with trepidation. He doesn’t know if they will ever bear fruit again. And then Spring arrives and his fears turn to joy as he views the blossoms emerging. He sees Hashem’s blessing on the way as his tree fills with blooms.
This is the message of Shavuos, the day when the people who a few months ago had nothing, now have everything.
Shavuos is referred to as Atzeres. One of the reasons given is that Torah provides a person with the ability to desist, to withstand temptations, to rise above negative middos and stop – la’atzor – his natural inclination. Torah is the tool we use to remain sublime, elevated and refined. Humility is our calling card. Ostentation and the pursuit of honor and glory are anathema to our goals. If we view ourselves as lacking, we can grow and have it all, but if we become conceited and view ourselves as accomplished, we risk squandering everything.
Remaining connected to Har Sinai also means remembering why that mountain was chosen as the location to deliver the Torah to the Jewish people. Hakadosh Boruch Hu overlooked towering peaks and soaring crests, instead selecting a humble mountain on which to transmit his treasure to the Chosen People. He chose as his messenger Moshe Rabbeinu, the humblest of men.
The late rosh yeshiva of Tchebin, Rav Avrohom Genechovsky, once reflected on the famed success of Rav Shmuel Rozovsky as Ponovezher rosh yeshiva.
“Do you know why Rav Shmuel has become the maggid shiur to a generation of maggidei shiur? Do you know why he is zocheh to be quoted by them and their talmidim, and why his Torah is blessed with such chein?”
Rav Avrohom shared a memory. He’d been a bochur in Ponovezh just after its founding. Alongside the yeshiva, the Ponovezher Rov had established a bais yesomim, a home for the many war orphans.
The children had classes and activities during the day, designed to educate them and rehabilitate them emotionally.
“What they were missing was a tatte, a father to review with them at night what they had learned that day,” recalled Rav Avrohom.
He recounted that every evening, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky would arrive at the orphanage and sit with the children, reviewing in a sing-song voice, ‘Kometz alef, oh. Kometz bais, boh.”
This would continue until the Ponovezher Rov would arrive to bid the children good night, telling Rav Shmuel, “Ihr kent tzurik gein in bais medrash. I’ll take over.”
“Can you imagine how pleasing Rav Shmuel’s Torah was when he went back to the bais medrash?” exclaimed Rav Genechovsky. “The special chein of his learning with the Aibishter’s kinderlach stamped his learning through the night and made it so beloved to his own eventual talmidim.”
With humility, kindness and love, Rav Shmuel ended up with everything.
Not only was he blessed, but those poor children who arrived in Eretz Yisroel with nothing – no possessions, no family, and, it seemed, no future – were blessed with everything thanks to the Torah giant who took them under his wing.
That has always been the mark of Torah.
On Shavuos, we reaffirm our commitment to Torah and its ways, accepting it with gratitude and joy and reminding ourselves of what Torah living really entails.
During the period in which Rav Yisroel Salanter lived in Paris to spread Torah there, he once fell down a long flight of stairs, lost consciousness, and suffered serious wounds. He miraculously recovered after a few days. He later related that even as he was falling, he was not scared. “I was living in Paris only to do Hashem’s work, with no ulterior motives or benefits. I knew that I wouldn’t be harmed.”
All of us, in our lives, wherever we are and whatever we do, can be shluchei mitzvah like Rav Yisroel. We can act altruistically, not looking at what’s in it for us, but for what we can do to help others. We can act with the Torah as our guide, and not our egos or wallets. We can remember our roots, our destiny, and why we are here, and ensure that every action we take causes a kiddush Hashem.
If we are as fortunate to live as Rus did, as good Jews have lived throughout the years, and as the humble farmer riding his donkey to Yerushalayim with his basket of fruits did, cleaving to the Torah and its lessons, we will be blessed as well.
Kol halomeid Torah lishmah zocheh l’devorim harbei.