What Is Judaism All About?
Shavuot — which falls seven weeks and a day after Pesach, (hence the name, Shavuot= “Weeks”)-, is the time when Jews live-back the moment God made “ten pronouncements” considered to be the essence of Jewish laws and ethics.
So, much so, that Shavuot is also called zeman matan toratenu, “the moment of the giving our Torah,” on account that the “Ten Pronouncements” (wrongly translated as “Ten Commandments”) encapsulate the principles that govern the totality of Jewish wisdom and law.
But do they?
The prohibition of murder, theft, even adultery and coveting are essentially concerned with protecting property rather than caring for the oppressed. There is nothing, for instance, about social justice, the protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about all kinds of slavery, the refugee, the poor, discrimination, and many other central themes touched by prophets, wisdom teachers and rabbis.
That’s why tradition felt the need to fill the gap in presenting core Jewish values by establishing the reading on Shavuot of the biblical book of Ruth
“This scroll is concerned neither with the laws of purity or impurity, of permitted or forbidden actions. Why, then, was it written?” -asks one ancient Jewish text-“ To teach you how great is the reward for the practice of hesed.”
This is the keyword to understand the whole book of Ruth; it is also a word that denotes one of the core principles without which no Judaism is possible.
Eight verses in the first chapter we already read:
And Naomi said unto her two daughters-in-law: ‘Go, return each of you to her mother’s house; may the Lord deal hesed with you
And later, confronted by Ruth on the threshing floor, Boaz speaks of her hesed. To him being even greater than the hesed she had done earlier, presumably in accompanying Naomi to Bethlehem.
“Examples of hesed in the book of Ruth follow one after the other. They include Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law, the offering of herself to Boaz and the threshing floor, Boaz’s extravagant offer to marry her in the name of the ge’ulla-which by legal definition in no way includes such a marriage.”
So, what exactly is hesed?
This is a slippery slope Hebrew term to translate, that’s why it should better be kept in its Hebrew original.
The Hebrew Hesed denotes “readiness to come to each other’s aid.” The term, in fact, includes any act by which one person can confer a benefit on another.
It is a kind of spontaneous generation of goodwill in the human character which makes us take pleasure in giving selflessly and happily to others; the character trait which Judaism felt must underlie all interpersonal relationships.
The root-meaning of the Hebrew hesed means promptitude to help, or, as a verb ‘to gather with a view to help.’
How to love, understood as helping to be wholesome- such is the grand question put to all the characters of Ruth.
Jewish spirituality, at difference, for instance from Eastern spirituality, puts the emphasis not on self-spiritual development but on “service.”
In the words of the prophet Micah:
“He has told you, O human, what is good; and what does God require of you-but to act justly, to love hesed and to walk humbly with your God.”
Together with the “Ten Pronouncements,” hesed gives a good understanding of what Judaism is all- about.