We have an ancient and well-nigh universal tradition of reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot (see the Yalkut Shimoni, Ruth 596 and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 490:9).

One reason is that Ruth’s great-grandson, King David, whose birth is the climax of the Book of Ruth, died on Shavuot (Yerushalmi Beitzah 2:4, Chagigah 2:3).

Another reason is that Shavuot celebrates the time when we as a nation accepted the Torah, when Israel “converted” to Judaism, so to speak, and Ruth is the primordial paradigm for the individual who converted to Judaism, joining the nation almost four centuries after the Torah was given.

Indeed the two paradigms for conversion to Judaism and are Ruth and the Giving of the Torah (see Yevamot 47b and the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah/Laws of Forbidden Relationships 13). So it is eminently appropriate that on Shavuot we read both the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:1-20:23) and the Book of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth opens by setting its events in their historical perspective:

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה לָגוּר בִּשְׂדֵי מוֹאָב,

הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וּשְׁנֵי בָנָיו:

It happened in the days of the Judges’ judging, that a famine happened in the Land; and a man went from Beit Lehem of Judea to dwell in the fields of Moab – he and his wife and his two sons” (Ruth 1:1).

We note that the word וַיְהִי, “it happened”, occurs twice in this one verse.

Hebrew has two words for “it happened”: וַיְהִי, vayehi; and וְהָיָה, ve-hayah. These two words are almost synonymous, but they carry subtly different connotations. The Midrash explains the difference:

“Wherever it says וַיְהִי, vayehi, it indicates sorrow; וְהָיָה, ve-hayah, indicates joy” (Bereishit Rabbah 42:3).

Indeed the Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the phrase וַיְהִי בִּימֵי, “it happened in the days of”, occurs five times in the Tanach:

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אַמְרָפֶל מֶלֶךְ שִׁנְעָר, “it happened in the days of Amraphel, king of Shinar…” (Genesis 14:1) – the introduction to the war between the four kings and the five, in which Lot, Abraham’s nephew, was taken captive;

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אָחָז בֶּן יוֹתָם בֶּן עֻזִּיָּהוּ מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה, “It happened in the days of Ahaz son of Yotam son of Uzziyahu, king of Judea…” (Isaiah 7:1) – the introduction to the war in which King Retzin of Aram and King Pekach ben Remaliyahu of Israel attacked Judea;

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי יְהוֹיָקִים בֶּן יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה, “it happened in the days of Yehoyakim ben Yoshiyahu, king of Judea…” (Jeremiah 1:3) – the final events leading to the Babylonian conquest of Judea, the destruction of the Holy Temple, and the first exile;

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים, “It happened in the days of the Judges’ judging, that a famine happened in the Land” (Ruth 1:1);

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, “It happened in the days of Achashverosh…” (Esther 1:1), introducing the events which led to Haman’s attempted genocide of all the Jews of the Persian Empire.

And the Ba’al ha-Turim concludes: “As brought in the Midrash, in all these there was וַי, vay (“woe”) in those days” (commentary to Genesis 14:1).

The obvious inference is that וַיְהִי (“it happened”) alludes to וַי, vay (“woe”).

But this seems puzzling: Did each of these five instances really lead to disaster?

Abraham took 318 of his disciples and rescued his nephew Lot.

The famine at the beginning of the Book of Ruth was over a few years later, Naomi returned to Israel with her erstwhile daughter-in-law Ruth, who married Boaz, and from that union eventually came forth King David who founded the Judean royal dynasty.

In the days of Achashverosh, though Haman plotted genocide, not a single Jew was killed. And just a few years later the Jews returned en masse to Israel, rebuilt the Holy Temple, and the Second Jewish Commonwealth began.

So how can the Midrash argue that the word וַיְהִי connotes sorrow?

– Apparently the Midrash makes us look at the events not from our perspective from the distant future, but rather from the contemporary perspective.

To Abraham, hearing that his nephew Lot had been taken captive would have been terribly distressing at the time. During the time of famine, of course there was sorrow and distress. When the Jews of the Persian Empire heard Haman’s decree, of course they were terribly distresses and panicked.

Without knowing how these events would eventually conclude, they were all terrifying.

We are about to begin maybe the most difficult Festival in a generation. Not since Sukkot of 5734 (1973), while the Yom Kippur War was raging and Israel’s very existence seemed in doubt, when the Arab onslaught had devastated the Israeli defence-lines both in the Golan in the north and the Suez Canal in south, when the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq were winning battle after battle, have we entered a Festival under such a cloud.

The disaster in Meron on Lag ba-Omer just two-and-a-half weeks ago, the several Jews murdered in recent terror attacks and killed by Hamas rockets, the ongoing barrage of missiles from Gaza unprecedented in its intensity, the murderous riots in the streets of Israel in Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Lod, Ramle, and other cities and towns, Arab rioters blocking major inter-city roads, the veritable tsunami of Jew-hatred engulfing most o the world – all this adds up to a pretty depressing picture.

But two principles resound above everything else:

The first principle is that we, the Jewish nation, have faced countless disasters and seeming disasters in our history. And often, very often, situations which seemed hopeless turned into magnificent salvations, sometimes slowly, sometimes swiftly, usually unexpectedly.

Exactly a week before Shavuot, we celebrated Yom Heirut Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Liberation Day.

For the record: In the first week of Iyyar 5727 (mid-May 1967), the Egyptian and Syrian Armies began mobilising on Israel’s southern and northern borders respectively.

Over the next two weeks, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Kuwait, Tunisia, Sudan, and Pakistan joined them.

By 25th Iyyar (4 June), this vast coalition of 13 Arabs and Muslim states surrounded Israel, sworn do its extermination. Military experts, political analysts, tacticians, commentators from around the world debated whether Israel could survive the impending onslaught, and if – a very big “if” – she could, then at what cost?

Estimates ran to over 100,000 Israelis killed.

Of all the world’s experts, only one got it right: the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson z”l, who predicted a stunning Israeli victory.

And when the war began and the Arab states all broadcast war-reports of Arab victories, of Tel Aviv and Haifa in flames, of Israeli war-planes “dropping like sparrows”, of the Israeli Army retreating and surrendering on all fronts, war correspondents from all nations reported as such to their various networks, and the entire world read of Israel being devastated.

One correspondent, and one alone, reported the true facts: Michael Elkins, a 50-year-old tough New York Jew, employed by the American news-network CBS.

But Elkins’ reports were so completely at odds with all the other reports from the war, that CBS refused to believe them and refused to run them.

(The BBC, slightly less sceptical, ran his story of Israeli victories on all fronts, albeit with the caveat that this was as yet unconfirmed.)

Disaster seemed inevitable – yet the result was one of the most stunning and impossible victories in the history of human conflict.

And just four days after the war was over, Jews celebrated Shavuot at the newly-liberated Western Wall. For the first time in 19 years Jews could worship there, and for the first time in 1,900 years under Jewish sovereignty.

The second principle is that Festivals are a time for celebration.

“Seven weeks shall you count…then you will celebrate the Festival of Shavuot to Hashem your G-d…and you will rejoice before Hashem your G-d” (Deuteronomy 16:9-11).

G-d commands us to rejoice on His festivals, in this case on Shavuot.

Just as a Jew is commanded to make Kiddush on Shabbat and the Festivals, just as he is commanded to pray three times a day, just as he is commanded to recite a Brachah (a Blessing) over food before eating it, so too he is commanded to rejoice on Shavuot.

Just as a Jew cannot refuse to make Kiddush, or to pray, or to recite the Blessings, just because he “doesn’t feel like it now”, so too he cannot refuse to rejoice on Shavuot just because he “isn’t in the right mood”.

Rejoicing on Shavuot is a mitzvah, a direct commandment from G-d, to do regardless of how you feel at that particular moment.

Is it difficult, at this time, to rejoice?

– Yes, of course it is: the sadness of recent tragedies and the uncertainty of the future hovers as a dark cloud over us all.

But as we read in Pirkei Avot just last Shabbat, “Ben Hei Hei said: The reward [for a mitzvah] is commensurate with its difficulty” (Pirkei Avot 5:23).

Rejoicing and celebrating in good times is easy: a Jew celebrating Shavuot in the aftermath of the Six Day War could hardly expect a reward, or at least not a major reward, for rejoicing. Rejoicing in that euphoric time was easy – indeed, instinctive.

Rejoicing and celebrating on Shavuot this year will be far, far harder; and therefore, the reward that G-d will grant us for genuine rejoicing will be commensurately greater.

Chag sameach to all Israel, with hope and yearning for better days to come swiftly.