Fewer than half our children are being born into Jewish-Jewish homes, since the interfaith marriage rate is more than 50 percent. Along comes Shavuot with its tale of how Ruth chose the Jewish people with a declaration of faith and an act of devotion. Shavuot can challenge each family to renew its commitment to a Jewish life.
According to the story of Ruth, she makes a vow to her mother-in-law: "Where you go, I will go; your God will be my God." Through her commitment she helps to renew the Jewish people. Tradition honors Ruth's action by declaring her the grandmother of the great King David, and, therefore, the messianic line. For that reason, when we go to synagogue on Shavuot, we hear the reading of the Book of Ruth.
Shavuot, meaning "weeks," comes exactly seven weeks after Passover (49 days of the Omer, remember). It originated as a harvest festival, but in the period of rabbinic Judaism Shavuot's focus shifted to commemorating the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai.
Hence the importance of the story of Ruth, a woman who accepted Judaism and its covenant with God of her own free will, without having been born into it.
One midrash or rabbinic story about the giving of the Torah has God offering the Torah to different nations. Each turns it down for some reason. Finally, God turns to the Jews and asks if they will take the Torah. Without even asking what is in it, they say, with one voice, "We will do and we will listen."
Another midrash is not as flattering. In this version, God lifts Mount Sinai over the heads of the terrified Israelites and asks them if they will accept the Torah. Under such overwhelming duress, they hardly have a choice.
Teaching our children Torah should be a joyful priority, one undertaken in the spirit of the first midrash. The Torah itself is quite unequivocal in its description of the Sinai scene. It states that the Torah was given to all generations of Jews. Much like renewing wedding vows, we read the Book of Ruth and renew our commitment to the Torah and to our covenant with God.
Shavuot is also a day to honor the converts to Judaism who so inspire and renew us. Some converts and born Jews go to the mikvah (ritual bath) every year on Shavuot to commemorate their conversion to Judaism or the reaffirmation of their covenant. It is also common on Shavuot for synagogues to conduct confirmation ceremonies for teenagers who have finished two years of post bar-bat mitzvah Jewish education, and consecration ceremonies for children beginning their religious studies.
Here are some other ideas to bring Shavuot to life in your home:
*Study together. According to the Jewish mystical tradition, it is customary to stay up all night on Shavuot to prepare for the revelation of the Torah. Some people spend the night studying at the synagogue or in chavurot (study groups). While it may not be possible for a family with children to do this, you can recreate that sense of urgency and holiness by studying together at home.
*Make an ark. Our children have their own printed Torah scrolls that they cherish. We plan to help them decorate a cardboard box for Shavuot, so their Torahs will have a home in their room.
We often take our Jewishness for granted. Shavuot is a time to reaffirm for ourselves and our children that at Sinai a special relationship between the Jewish people and God was created. It is up to each of us to make sure that this covenant continues.