The duality of Shavuot is undeniable: the yom tov exists, or rather coexists, with distinctly different facets. On the one hand is its status as an agricultural festival marking the wheat/barley harvest and the related celebration of the precociousness of the Land of Israel and another aspect is its historic commemoration of the most remarkable event in the origin story of the Jewish People – the Revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Passover and Shavuot are connected by family ties as much as they are the Counting of the Omer that ends with Shavuot. That is, Nachshon, a hero of the Seventh Day of Passover, and Ruth’s husband Boaz.
Nachshon who entered the Red Sea—as the ancient Midrash revealed, up to his nose—was the grandfather of Boaz and we remember the splitting of the Sea on the Seventh Day of Passover holiday each year. It is passed down to us from ancient Jewish wisdom that the story of Ruth and Boaz is to be read aloud during the Shavuot services every year. Nachshon was, also, the brother-in-law of Moses’s brother Aaron, and Nachshon is mentioned by name in the Book of Ruth.
The duality of Shavuot is prominent in the Book of Ruth. The timing of the story is during the harvest and also there is Ruth’s personal decision to accept the Torah as law—exactly as the Jewish People did at Sinai on the first Shavuot in our history.
What is more, Passover and Shavuot are connected not only by, but through Jerusalem.
We may not proclaim “Next Year In Jerusalem!” at Shavuot but Jerusalem as much as Sinai is the center point of not just Shavuot but of Judaism.
Shavuot is one of the three pilgrimage holidays that is named in the Torah where the Jewish People are directed to travel to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and offer sacrifices in the one location on Earth where G-d decreed that sacrifices be made to Him.
And who built that Holy Temple? Boaz’s great-great-grandson, Solomon (Shlomo HaMelech). Solomon, the direct male descendent of Nachshon and the son of David.
In America it is a true tragedy that the magnificence of Shavuot has degenerated for many into synagogue board member installations, cheesecake recipes, and confirmation graduations.
But it was not always this way.
In his 1935 book, Rabbi Charles Kahane, an Orthodox rabbi who hosted the great Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky in his Brooklyn home, wrote about Shavuot and his words are worth recalling:
"At the time that our (ancestors) lived a normal life and were rooted in the soil, the holiday of Shavuot was in addition to being a celebration of the granting of the Torah, a holiday or nature. (…) The Jewish farmer would go (and take) the choicest fruits from the trees, place them in a basket, and set out for Jerusalem to the House of the L-rd. On the way he met neighboring farmers possessed of the same determined purpose. They greeted one another with the words: "Come let us go to Zion, to the House of our G-d.” Together they proclaimed “I rejoiced when I was told: Let us go to the House of the L-rd." It was a glorious procession." (Source: The Echo of Tradition: A Collection of Sermons for Jewish Holidays and Other Occasions)
It is also a tragedy that the dual nature of the yom tov is unseen even by those who more traditionally observe Shavuot.
Of course, the night long studying of Torah that many engage in is a good and a beautiful thing. But there is much more to Shavuot for us in our time.
In order to properly internalize the full context of Shavuot, it is very instructive to take a close look at what made the men of Nachshon’s and Boaz’s family so distinctive.
The most distinguishing character trait of this family is the ability of their members to show complete disregard for their own individual wellbeing and step forward into the face of danger.
Judah (Yehuda), the son of Jacob (Yakov), stepped forward, when no one else would, and saved the life of his brother Joseph (Yosef) when his other brothers had murder in their hearts.
Nachshon stepped forward, when no one else would, and entered the Red Sea and demonstrated a genuine faith that we recall until today.
Boaz stepped forward, when no one else would, at great risk to his reputation and took responsibility for Ruth, a convert from Moab, when it was known that Jewish women were prohibited from marrying Moabite men.
David, while still a boy, stepped forward, when no one else would, and on the field of battle faced Goliath. Goliath had taunted the soldiers of Israel for 40 days with insults and David took the giant’s life with a single smooth stone from his sling.
And in the Book of Ruth we also find out how those other members of this illustrious family who ran from their inclination to step forward suffered for this. Ploni Almoni, Boaz’s kinsman, who would not take responsibility for Ruth loses his place in Jewish history and we do not even know his name from the Book of Ruth. Ploni Almoni being Biblical Hebrew jargon for “so and so.”
But Ruth’s first father-in-law, Elimelech, fares far worse than Ploni Almoni. When Elimelech left the Land of Israel for Moab he was a community leader. When the times were rough, due to a drought, Elimelech took his wife, Naomi, and his sons and chose exile rather than stepping forward and providing our people with leadership. He was never to return to Israel. Elimelech and his sons died in Moab and no future generations would come from their family line.
The lessons are clear.
Those who are blessed with the necessary talent and fortitude to do what is necessary to help a fellow Jew, whether many people or an individual, must heed the call.
And, also the Land of Israel is precious and must be treasured. This is not just a Zionist belief it’s a Jewish imperative.
This is Shavuot. This is Judaism. This is Zionism.
-When Herzl stepped forward and initiated the Zionist movement, he heard the call.
-When Jabotinsky stepped forward and proclaimed it was time to leave behind the character of the ghetto Jew and showed young Jews it was far better to take a stand, he heard the call.
-When the resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto stepped forward to battle the Nazis, they heard the call.
-When the soldiers of the Irgun and Stern Group (LEHI) stepped forward to free Israel from the British Mandate, they heard the call.
-When the Refuseniks and the Jewish activists of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s stepped forward against the totalitarian Soviet Union, they heard the call.
-When Israeli intelligence operatives in the 1980s went into the heart of Africa and covertly evacuated Ethiopian Jewish refugees to Israel, they heard the call.
What other nation in history ever went into Africa with the sole purpose of bringing Africans out to freedom, honor, and safety? Israel did that.
This is Zionism. This is Judaism. This is the love of a brother being responsible for a brother. This is beautiful and it is eternal.
Let us be worthy of listening for today’s calls and step forward.
This is what Shavuot demands of us. And the rewards are far sweeter than cheesecake.
Moshe Phillips is national director of Herut North America’s U.S. division. Herut is an international movement for Zionist pride and education and its U.S. website is https://herutna.org/