The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ or The Fellowship) was founded in 1983 to promote better understanding and cooperation between Christians and Jews and build broad support for Israel. Today it is one of the leading forces helping Israel and Jews in need worldwide, and is the largest channel of Christian support for Israel. Founded by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, The Fellowship now raises more than $120 million per year, mostly from Christians, to assist Israel and the Jewish people. Since its founding, The Fellowship has raised more than $1.8 billion for this work. The organization has offices in Jerusalem, Chicago, Toronto, and Seoul.
Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President and CEO, oversees all ministry programs and serves as the international spokesperson for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Prior to her present duties, Yael served as Global Executive Vice President, Senior Vice President, and Director of Program Development and Ministry Outreach. Based in Israel with her husband and their four children, Yael is a published writer and a respected social services professional.
We recently spoke to Yael Eckstein about the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which takes place in the late Spring every year.
What is the holiday of Shavuot?
Let’s begin by understanding what the Festival of Weeks, Shavuot, is all about. In the Jewish tradition this holiday has two major themes. The first, the one that most Christians are probably most familiar with, is the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem as the Bible directs us to. This is how Jesus would have marked the holiday in his time, along with so many other Jews who lived during that time period when the Temple was standing. The second theme of Shavuot is celebrating the Bible, the Word of God. This holiday marks the day when God appeared to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai around 3,000 years ago and gave them His greatest treasure, the Torah, which changed all of humanity from that point on.
How do you and your family celebrate the holiday of Shavuot?
Getting the house ready for Shavuot is a fun family activity in my home. Many Jews have the custom of decorating their homes and synagogues in a way that is connected to the themes of the holiday. In school, the younger kids usually make art projects of beautiful baskets filled with fruit, like the first fruits once brought on Shavuot, and we place them on our festive table.
We pick flowers and greenery and place them all over our dining room because according to Jewish tradition, when God appeared on Mount Sinai, the desert mountain miraculously bloomed and became full of beautiful flowers. We also decorate with stalks of wheat. We do this because Shavuot takes place during the wheat harvest, and also because wheat stalks are a reference to Ruth. So much of the Ruth story unfolds in wheat fields.
What does the Book of Ruth have to do with the Festival of Weeks?
It seems to have no connection to the holiday. But let’s go deeper.
The rabbis gave several reasons why we read Ruth’s story on Shavuot. One of them is because Shavuot marks the day when the nation of Israel entered into an eternal covenant with God by accepting His Torah.
Now you might remember Ruth demonstrated the same commitment to God and His word when she stayed with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and joined the Jewish people. The verses that I want to explore with you today are the famous words that Ruth said to Naomi when Naomi tried to dissuade both of her daughters-in-law from returning with her to the Holy Land.
The Book of Ruth begins with a famine in the land of Israel. And in order to escape the famine, a man named Elimelech takes his wife, Naomi, and their two sons and moves to the land of Moab. Unfortunately, things don’t go too well for this family in Moab. First, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi a widow. Then her two sons marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. By the way, according to Jewish tradition, these weren’t just any Moabite women; they were actually Moabite princesses, royalty.A decade later, both of Naomi’s sons die. With nothing left to lose, Naomi decides to leave and return to her homeland. At first, both Ruth and Orpah insist on accompanying Naomi back to the land of Israel even though she tries to dissuade them. The Jewish sages explained that it wasn’t just their mother-in-law that the two women were dedicated to. After 10 years of these Moabite women living with Naomi and her sons, Ruth and Orpah learned about the God of Israel, and they actually came to love Him. They wanted to continue living their lives according to God’s Word, with Naomi as their mentor. Now, eventually Orpah gave in and left Naomi, but Ruth persisted and insisted on sticking with her.This is exactly where our verses come in, Ruth 1:16-18:
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. What beautiful words. With these words Ruth expressed her commitment to Naomi and to the God of Israel. She made a promise and made it clear that she would do whatever it took to uphold it. Scripture tells us that when Naomi saw that Ruth was committed to following her, she stopped trying to convince her to leave. The Jewish sages explained that Naomi stopped trying to convince Ruth to leave not because she got tired and gave up, but because she saw that Ruth possessed an important quality.
It’s hard to find one word that describes this quality. It’s actually a combination of being both committed and persistent. So, I looked in the dictionary and the best word that I could find is “committedness.” Yes, that’s a real word. I looked it up: committedness. When Naomi saw that Ruth had this quality of committedness, she was convinced that Ruth was worthy of becoming part of God’s chosen people.
Now let’s go back in time when the nation of Israel stood at Mount Sinai and they demonstrated the very same quality that Ruth did. According to Jewish tradition, before God offered the Torah to the nation of Israel, He first offered it to the pagan nations of the world. As the teaching goes, when God offered the Torah to each pagan nation, they requested to hear what was written inside of it before agreeing to accept it. One nation rejected the Bible when they heard that stealing was prohibited. Another said, “No, thank you” when they heard that sexual immorality was not allowed. Another nation turned down God’s offer when they learned that idolatry was forbidden.
Each nation was only willing to accept God’s Word on the condition that it fit conveniently with their lifestyle. Only the nation of Israel did not ask what was written in the Torah before accepting it. They were committed to God and His will no matter what He required of them. God knew that only Israel would accept the Torah unconditionally.
In Exodus 24:7, Scripture tells us that when God gave the Israelites the Torah, they declared, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” In the original Hebrew, the Israelites said we will do and we will listen. Instead of the other nations, that first wanted to listen to what was in the Torah and only then commit to doing what it said, the Israelites reversed the order. First, they said, “We will do,” and only then they said, “We will listen.” That declaration meant that first and foremost, the people were unconditionally committed to doing whatever God demanded of them. They were committed to God. They were committed to obeying God, no matter what He asked of them.
Isn’t that amazing? Don’t you see how it’s all connected? How amazing is it that the same quality that Ruth demonstrated when she clung to Naomi is the one that the Israelites exhibited at Mount Sinai? They both had the quality of committedness, of unconditional commitment and obedience to God no matter what. Scripture seems to be telling us that this quality is one of the most, if not the most, important characteristics of any person of faith.
What is the most important quality in a person of faith? There are many different answers. Kindness, morality, honesty, or having unwavering faith in God. I’m not sure that commitment, persistence, or obedience would rank among most people’s top choices, but that’s exactly what Scripture implies. Commitment and consistency are the foundation of our relationship with God.
This is why the Jewish sages compared the revelation at Sinai to a wedding between God and His people. Israel entered into a sacred relationship with God. And like a bride and groom, the relationship was a loving one. But like any good marriage, the relationship needed to be based on commitment, a commitment that would stand the test of time.
When I see two people in love speaking sweetly to each other and gazing into each other’s eyes, it’s beautiful, but I’m not so impressed. It’s when I see an elderly couple that has been married for decades and they look into each other’s eyes that same way that’s impressive to me. That’s the most beautiful relationship. It takes commitment and consistency for a relationship to grow strong and to last just like Ruth and the Israelites receiving the Torah. A strong relationship starts with commitment and is kept alive with consistency.