Consider How Revelation Happens

Rabbi Maurice D. Harris

Rabbi Maurice Harris


The liturgy for the holiday of Shavuot showcases three powerful biblical texts: the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:1-20:23), a spectacular vision of God by a tormented prophet in exile (Ezekiel 1:1-28 and 3:12) and a tale of love and loyalty between women that crosses religious and national boundaries and quietly prepares the way for the future Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem (the Book of Ruth).

All of these texts tell stories of transformation. But the first two are quite different than the third. The first two involve divine power and presence overwhelming frail humans with terrifying sensory overload.

At Sinai, the mountain trembles, horns blare, God speaks in thunder and smoke surges up from the peak. In Babylon, Ezekiel has a disorienting, spectacular vision of God’s chariot, including impossibly strange four-faced creatures, chariot wheels rimmed with eyes and a heavenly throne with a figure in human form upon it. After beholding these things, Ezekiel hurls himself to the ground on his face.

But the third of these texts is quite different. Ruth’s story lacks the auditory eruptions, ground-quaking vibrations or mind-bending visuals of the other two texts. The great revelation in the Book of Ruth erupts within a single human heart. And not only that — this heart happens to belong to an outsider, a non-Israelite who, in fact, belongs to a nation, Moab, that was an ancient enemy of the Israelites.

Revelation in Ruth bursts forth when her tenacious loving attachment to her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi proves stronger than all other forces, even the forces of death, poverty and misfortune. That unstoppable love then grows into a personal journey by Ruth into kinship with the Jewish people. Intimate, tender, clever and sensuous, the Book of Ruth offers us an entirely different notion of revelation than its Shavuot companion texts.
Consider also the geographic locations in which each of these stories takes place. The revelation at Mt. Sinai happens not in the land of Israel, but in the Sinai wilderness, an in-between place that was neither Egypt nor the Promised Land.

The prophet Ezekiel tells us he lives among the Jewish exiles from Jerusalem in ancient Babylon, following the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple (586 B.C.E.). The Book of Ruth takes place in two locations and includes an important geographical boundary crossing in its narrative. It begins in the land of Moab, just to the east of the land of Israel, and concludes in the territory of Judah, which was part of ancient Israel.

What might we make of these different story locations? I’ll close with one possible interpretation that takes into account the relationship each text has to Jerusalem.

The revelation at Sinai happens in no-man’s-land on the journey toward a future Jerusalem, but its audience is made up of recently liberated slaves who can scarcely imagine the Promised Land they have been told is their ultimate destination. In stark contrast, Ezekiel’s visions happen after Jerusalem and its Temple have been destroyed. The surviving Jewish exiles who are his audience can only remember Jerusalem as it once was.

It is Ruth’s story, however, that brings us geographically closest to the Jerusalem of biblical Israel. By the end of the book, Ruth has begun a new chapter of her life as a Jew-by-choice in Bethlehem, just a few kilometers away from the future capital of the Israelites’ kingdom. And though the Book of Ruth never specifically mentions Jerusalem, the last words of the book point us in its direction.

The Book of Ruth ends with a genealogy telling us that Ruth will be the great-grandmother of King David, and David’s name is the final word of the book. The book anticipates a Jerusalem that will be realized soon, to be ruled by an unexpected king descended from an unlikely Moabite ancestor whose stubborn love and tenacity bent mythic history into a strange and marvelous shape.

The sacred texts of Shavuot ask us to consider the different ways that revelation happens. It can thunder down upon us. It can seize us violently with visions. Or it can sprout in the soul of a person who insists on following her heart’s love and longing.

Rabbi Maurice Harris works as associate director for thriving communities and Israel affairs specialist at Reconstructing Judaism in Wyncote. He is the author of three books. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


  1. Thanks for sending this Rabbi. I have not had a chance to read it yet. I thought there was going to be a zoom link regarding Shavuot. I was looking forward to that.

  2. What happened to the zoom link for this discussion? I am interested in joining this community. Please tell me how to do it. Thanks, Diana


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