Watch Rabbi Sacks’ Shavuot video message, entitled ‘Seasons of Love’, below.
If you look at the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals, you find something very remarkable, specifically if you look at the megilla that we read on each.
On Pesach we read Shir HaShirim, the song of songs. On Shavuot we read Megilat Ruth, the book of Ruth. And on Sukkot we read Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes. And the fascinating thing about those three megilot is that they’re all about love. But they’re about different seasons of love. So Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, is about love in the springtime, love when you’re young. The whole book of Shir HaShirim is a duet between two lovers who are obsessed with one another. There’s no mention in the whole book about marriage, children setting up home, responsibilities to the future; all there is is their passion for one another.
Turn to Kohelet, at the other extreme, Kohelet is about the autumn of the year, and it is about the autumn of life. The author of Kohelet is now an old man – Kohelet contains one of the most moving descriptions of old age in all of literature. And he’s looking back and he’s asking what really was worthwhile. And in the end it wasn’t all the houses he built, or the possessions you accumulated. He says, “Re’eh chayim im isha asher ahavta,” “See life with the woman you love.” This is love grown old, grown serene, but it’s still love in the autumn.
Between the two though, at the threshold of summer, is the story of Ruth. Love as chessed, loving-kindness, love as deed. And it is that chessed that, according to the sages, permeates the book from beginning to end. The chessed that Ruth had to her mother-in-law whom she sees as bereaved and bereft, and returning alone to her people, and she says, no, you can’t go alone. I will not leave you. And then Boaz, moved by this kindness he sees on the part of Ruth, and that moves him to extraordinary kindness of his own, taking her as his wife, caring for Naomi, and making sure that they will have a marriage, which will have children, which in the end, four generations down the line has David haMelech, the greatest of Israel’s kings.
This is love as loyalty. This is love as chessed. When [William] Tyndale in 1535 sat down to write the first full English translation of the Hebrew Bible, he had to coin a new word, loving kindness, to translate that word, chessed, which is the very essence of the book of Ruth. And it is that chessed that epitomises the relationship of Israel and God that happened on Shavuot at Mount Sinai.
What happened on that extraordinary moment when God made a covenant with a people was described by the Prophet Hersa as an erusin, “ve’erastich li”, I betrothed you to me forever, I betroth you to me in justice and righteousness and kindness and compassion. I betroth you to me in faith, and you will know the Lord.” That is faith as marriage, love as loyalty, and that is what Shavuot is all about.
In a world where religion is too often associated with extremism, with harshness, with prejudice, and with violence, we would do well to remember that essential message of should epitomised in the book of Ruth, that at the heart of faith is that faithfulness that binds us to one another in the love that is loyalty, and the loyalty that is love. We need more of it today; live it and experience it.