This week we will observe the holiday of Shavuot – the day we received the Torah on Mount Sinai. As such, Shavuot is essentially a celebration of Torah, Judaism, Jewish pride and the beauty of observing the mitzvot (commandments).
In addition to eating as much cheesecake as possible within the 48 hours of Shavuot (only one day in Israel, though), there is also a custom to study the Book of Ruth on this holiday. In some congregations outside of Israel, Ruth is read on the first day of Shavuot, while in others it is read on the second. There is also a custom in some communities that Ruth is not read publicly, but instead is left for everyone to read it on his or her own over the course of the holiday.
As with all the books of the Bible, Ruth is accompanied by a Midrashic commentary. There is one such fascinating teaching in the Midrash (rabbinic literature) that criticizes the behavior of three very prominent biblical characters.
Fame, Recognition and Ego: Barriers to Living Torah
The teaching begins with the story of Joseph’s brothers, who were plotting to kill Joseph, essentially as a result of their jealousy towards him. One brother, Reuben, was against the idea of murdering Joseph and instead suggested that they merely throw him into a pit and leave his fate in God’s hands rather than kill him directly. Reuven’s true intention, however, was to lift Joseph out of the pit later on and return him home safely. Notice how Reuben did not directly confront his brothers. Rather, he felt that he needed to save Joseph in a roundabout and secretive manner.
Get this: The Midrash says that if Reuben had known that the Torah would record this incident, namely, his efforts and true intention to save Joseph, then he would have proudly lifted his brother on his shoulders and paraded him home in full view of the others. That’s right, Reuben would have openly rescued Joseph and brought him home – had he only known that his heroism would be made public by being written in the Torah.
Was Reuben concerned with fame, ego, and recognition?
Remarkably, the Midrash does not stop there.
The Midrash then turns to Aaron. Upon Moses’s return to Egypt after so many years in order to begin leading the Exodus of the Hebrews, Aaron was the one who went out to greet him. The Torah tells us that Aaron went alone, merely greeted his brother, gave him a big hug, congratulated him on having been appointed by God to lead the nation – and that’s it.
Here it is again: The Midrash says that if Aaron had known that this event would be recorded in the Torah, he would have done a whole lot more than merely greet Moses. Rather than just greeting his brother alone, he would have made an elaborate procession with music and fanfare.
Was Aaron into fame, recognition, and ego?
And finally, the Midrash turns to Boaz, the hero of the Book of Ruth, which we read over the course of Shavuot. We see how Boaz offered the destitute newcomer Ruth some food to eat.
You guessed it: The Midrash says that if Boaz had known that his act of kindness towards Ruth would have been recorded, he would have served her a full course meal! What? Boaz? The great judge of Israel? Was he, too, into fame, recognition, and ego?
Three great leaders, all taking it easy because they didn’t know they would receive publicity. What are we to make of this?
Beware of Peer Pressure
The common denominator among all three situations is peer pressure – concern about how others would have responded to their good deed.
Reuben, of course, feared that he would meet with stern opposition from his brothers, to say the least, had he openly opposed their plan. In Aaron’s case, it was very uncertain how the Jewish people would react to Moses’s sudden arrival back in Egypt, having being propelled to leader and redeemer. Many indeed resented Moses’s sudden rise to leadership. A warm welcome may not have been the most popular move.
And Boaz. That’s an easy one. We can only imagine the rumors that would have started if word got out that Boaz was wining and dining a pretty Moabite woman.
How sad. Three great people who would have done more if not for peer pressure. But had they realized that their intentions would have God’s explicit and public endorsement, so to speak, they would have acted with more vigor and confidence.
Shavuot is the day we celebrate the giving of the Torah. This Midrash is an important lesson for those of us who occasionally feel self-conscious around peers who do not necessarily approve of our Torah observance. It is natural to feel intimidated and subdued around people who look down on observing the Torah and its mitzvot. But we must remember that the mitzvot that we do have God’s official endorsement! We must remember that they are being written down on a Heavenly scroll. If God approves, it does not matter what others may think.
Let us use the holiday of Shavuot to recharge our batteries and renew our commitment to observing the Torah even when doing so is not necessarily fashionable. The Torah is not merely a museum piece or a once-a-year celebration! It is a living Torah and a daily celebration. Be proud to observe the Torah! Be proud to be a Jew!