Shavuot: Covenant and Consent

In the Torah’s account of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the people’s response initially seems to be one of compliance or obedience, as they anticipate the coming revelation: (Ex. 19:8)

וַיַּעֲנ֨וּ כָל־הָעָ֤ם יַחְדָּו֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂ֑ה!

All the people answered as one, saying, “All that Hashem has spoken we will do!” (Ex. 19:8)

The rabbis wrestle with the eagerness of the people to comply with God’s commands.  On the one hand, the people are praised for their willingness to accept the Torah without question.  On the other, the rabbis view the lack of understanding or consent as potentially problematic, and there are a number of midrashim (that I won’t go into here) that work through this question.  They are cautious, as we might be as well, about the dangers of coercion, even by God.  

The often-cited phrase “naaseh v’nishma” – we will do and we will hear – that is emblematic of the willingness to do first and ask questions later – doesn’t actually appear until a few chapters later, at the conclusion of the most intensive moment of revelation. Some rabbinic traditions assert that even though this statement appears later in the text, the people actually said this before the revelation took place.  According to a midrash in the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, this later statement was a correction of their earlier promise to do what God commands After they say “everything God has said we will do!”:

Moses said to them, ‘Is doing possible without understanding? Understanding brings one to doing.’ They then said, ‘naaseh v’nishma,’ [meaning] ‘We will do what we understand.’ This teaches that the people said ‘na’aseh v’nishma’ before receiving the Torah” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 24:7).

In the midrash’s interpretation, the people are willing to commit themselves to the Torah even before fully understanding what it is, and it is only after gentle pushback from Moses that they realize the importance of understanding to being able to consent to the terms of the contract. 

The language of receiving instruction and compliance echoes in the Book of Ruth, that we traditionally read on the second day of Shavuot. 

In Chapter 3, Naomi, wishing to secure a home for her daughter-in-law, Ruth, hatches a plan to have Ruth go to Boaz under cover of darkness and to lie down at his feet on the threshing floor.  She says to Ruth that after she does this:

 וְהוּא֙ יַגִּ֣יד לָ֔ךְ אֵ֖ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּעַשִֽׂין

“He, Boaz, will tell you what you are to do.” (3:4)

In this moment everything seems pointed in a direction that unfortunately is all too familiar – Naomi is sending Ruth into a vulnerable situation and instructing her to comply with what a more powerful man demands of her.  

Ruth’s response offers a subtle challenge to Naomi and perhaps a reclamation of her own agency: 

וַתֹּ֖אמֶר אֵלֶ֑יהָ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאמְרִ֥י [אֵלַ֖י] אֶֽעֱשֶֽׂה׃

“Ruth said to her: Everything you tell me, I will do.” (3:5)

Ruth seems to be willing to go along with the plan, but she shifts the site of her obedience from Boaz to Naomi.  She speaks in her own voice, asserting her allegiance to and trust in Naomi – I will do what you tell me.  

Moving forward with the plan, Ruth is active rather than passive.  Instead of awaiting his instruction as Naomi had suggested, Ruth gives instructions to Boaz.  When he wakes up, startled at her presence, she goes off script, saying: “Spread your robe over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman” (3:9).  In her great vulnerability, Ruth nevertheless speaks for herself, not knowing what will happen, demanding a part in determining her fate. 

Boaz’s response is perhaps the most surprising of all.  Hearing Ruth, he says:

כֹּ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאמְרִ֖י אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לָּ֑ךְ

“Whatever you say, I will do for you.” (3:11)

As Tikva Frymer-Kensky and Tamara Cohn Eskenazi note in their commentary on the book, Boaz’s statement is identical to Ruth’s earlier response to Naomi’s instructions, but he adds that he will do it “for her.” Boaz responds directly to Ruth, taking her claims seriously, and makes a commitment to her.  He sees her as a person with dignity and agency, with the ability to make claims of her own.  

A close reading of the statements of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz has much to teach us about navigating our own relationships with other people, our right to be seen and to consent, and our responsibility to treat others, including those we hold authority over, with dignity and respect.  What can Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz offer us in understanding our relationship to revelation and to the claims that God and the Torah have on us? 

I want to suggest that Boaz, who is called a redeemer, acts in a way that we can expect God, the divine redeemer, to act toward us – with kindness and compassion; respecting our dignity; desiring our consent to be in relationship. As we receive the Torah this Shavuot, my blessing is that we will have the opportunity to re-experience the moment of revelation as an opportunity to be asked to enter into a covenant with God and to be able to say with our fullest selves “yes.”


(A form of this d’var Torah was given on May 20, 2018, Shavuot 5778, at the Fort Tryon Jewish Center)