A Conversation with Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President and CEO, on the Festival of Weeks, Shavuot￼
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.
Yael Eckstein has contributed to The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, Newsweek, and many other publications and is the author of three books: Generation to Generation: Passing on a Legacy of Faith to Our Children, Holy Land Reflections: A Collection of Inspirational Insights from Israel, and Spiritual Cooking with Yael. In addition, her insights into life in Israel, the Jewish faith, and Jewish-Christian relations can be heard on The Fellowship’s radio programs, as well as on her two podcasts: Nourish Your Biblical Roots, and Conversations with Yael.
Yael Eckstein has partnered with other global organizations, appeared on national television, and visited with U.S. and world leaders on issues of shared concern. She has been a featured guest on CBN’s The 700 Club with Gordon Robertson, and she served on a Religious Liberty Panel in May 2015 in Washington, D.C., discussing religious persecution in the Middle East. Her influence as one of the young leaders in Israel has been recognized with her inclusion in The Jerusalem Post’s 50 Most Influential Jews of 2020 and 2021, and The Algemeiner’s Jewish 100 of 2019, and she was featured as the cover story of Nashim (Women) magazine in May 2015.
Born in Evanston, Illinois, outside of Chicago, and well-educated at both American and Israeli institutions – including biblical studies at Torat Chesed Seminary in Israel, Jewish and sociology studies at Queens College in New York, and additional study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem – Yael Eckstein has also been a Hebrew and Jewish Studies teacher in the United States.
What is Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks?
In Temple times, Jews from all over Israel would bring their first fruits as an offering, and they would express their gratitude to God for all of the blessings in their lives. We don’t have the Temple anymore, but Shavuot is still a time to recognize our blessings and to say thank you for them. So I take this time to thank God for all of His abundant blessings.
Shavuot is also a time to celebrate the Hebrew Bible because God gave it to the Israelites at Mount Sinai on the same Hebrew date that we observe the Festival of Weeks. And if there is one thing that binds Jews and Christians together, it is our mutual love and admiration and appreciation for the Word of God.
What scripture is read during Shavuot?
On this holiday, we read the Book of Ruth.
We read some key verses from the Book of Ruth in order to discover the one quality that can elevate all other character traits and take our service of God to the next level.
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.
You might remember and see the similarity that Ruth demonstrated the same commitment to God and his Word when she stuck to her mother-in-law, Naomi, and joined the Jewish people.
How did Ruth demonstrate such a strong commitment to God?
The Book of Ruth begins with the 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. According to Jewish tradition, these were actually Moabite princesses, royalty.
A decade later, both of Naomi’s sons die. With nothing else to lose, she decides simply 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. They are verses 16 to 18 in the first chapter of Ruth. I’m going to read the verses to you now. “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.'” Amech ami, it says in Hebrew. “Your people will be my people.” Elohim, Elohim, it says in Hebrew. “And your God, my God. Where you die, I will die. And there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me but 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, no matter what. 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 explain 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.
How does the story of Ruth tie into the Nation of Israel accepting the Torah from God?
According to Jewish tradition, before God offered the Torah to the Nation of Israel, God 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 in 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.
Whether or not we take this story literally, the point is that 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 of the Bible, the Israelites said na’aseh v’nishma, which literally means, we will do and we will listen. Instead of saying, like the other nations, that first they wanted to listen to what was in the Torah and only then commit to doing what it says, 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 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 unconditional commitment and obedience to God, no matter what.
Do you believe that unconditional commitment is the most important characteristic of a person of faith?
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. If I had asked you before what you thought was the most important quality in a person of faith, I’m guessing you probably would have thought of much different answers. I know I would have. You might have thought of qualities such as kindness, morality, honesty, or having unwavering faith in God. I’m not sure that commitment, persistence, or obedience would have been your top choices, but that’s exactly what these Scriptures imply.
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.
How do you celebrate the commitment of Shavuot in your home?
Getting the house ready for Shavuot is a fun family activity in my home. Many Jews have the custom of decorating our homes and synagogues in a way that is connected to these themes of the holiday. The younger kids usually make art projects in school of beautiful baskets filled with fruit, like the firstfruits 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 Ruth’s story unfolds in wheat fields.
How can we delve deeper into our commitment to God?
When we stay obedient to God, we take our relationship with Him, through happy times and difficult times, to a higher level. The more we remain committed and consistent in our service of God, the more we will grow closer and personally connected to Him. The holiday of Shavuot is the time to celebrate God’s Word, and it’s also a time to recommit ourselves to his Word.
I challenge you to remain committed and consistent in your service of God. What are the core values that you won’t waver on? Will you stick with it like Ruth, or will you turn back like Orpah when it gets difficult to remain obedient? God sticks with us no matter what. And the question we have to ask ourselves every second of every day is, will we stick with Him?