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Wednesday
Feb152017

THE CONVERT: THE CONSUMMATE INSIDER

MOSHE AND YISROEL

This week’s parsha opens with some enigmatic statements:

It begins: “Moshe’s father-in-law, Yisro, the priest of Midian, heard about all that G-d had done for Moshe and His people Israel when He brought Israel out of Egypt.”

A question is posed, why does Yisro separate Moshe from Israel?

Another question is asked on the following verses: “Yisro brought along Moshe’s wife Tzipora… and her two sons. The name of the one was Gershom, because he declared, ‘I was a foreigner [Ger] in a strange land…’”

The reason for choosing this name Gershom had already been mentioned earlier at the time of his birth. Why repeat it here?

YISRO’S UNUSUAL POSITION

To answer these questions, we must first answer a much more fundamental question concerning the name of the parsha, as well as some of its content:

This Torah portion can be called the “mother of all Torah portions” because it contains the events of Mattan Torah, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. So, shouldn’t the parsha have been named “Torah,” “Moshe” or “Sinai” instead? Or indeed any other name that would capture history’s most momentous event? Instead, this parsha is named after Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, formerly a Midianite pagan priest!

Moreover, the Zohar states that G-d waited for Yisro to arrive at Sinai before He was ready to give the Torah to the Jewish people! Why was his participation so crucial?

If this is not sufficiently puzzling, the Torah relates that Yisro actually contributed to the design of the Torah’s judicial system and thereby added a section to the Torah!

It seems clear that Yisro was hardly an inconsequential figure, although he was the consummate “outsider” with dubious credentials.

How can we explain Yisro’s elevated position in the Torah?

THE CONVERSION PARADOX

To crack this riddle, we have to examine the Torah’s view of the Jewish nation and its relationship to outsiders who join the fold. We routinely identify ourselves as descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov; Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. There is hardly a section in the Torah that doesn’t invoke their memory. G-d’s “love affair” with the Patriarchs and Matriarchs is so powerful that in their merit G-d overlooks our iniquities and promises to liberate us from exile.

Moreover, our Sages speak of the distinguishing traits of the Jewish people as though they are part of our DNA, inherited directly from the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The Talmud states that one who lacks compassion, kindness and modesty will have his or her Jewish identity called into question and reasonably so. Thus, the refusal of the Gibeonites to soften their harsh demand for retribution against the descendants of King Shaul for the harm he had caused them, was King Dovid’s cue to bar them from marrying into the Jewish community. They were banned because of their un-Jewish attitude.

It would stand to reason that Judaism is based on our biological connection to our ancestors.

Yet, the Torah not only permits conversion to Judaism, but, as Maimonides states emphatically, there is a double Mitzvah in loving a convert to Judaism. The first commandment is the general one that applies to all the Jewish people, who are to be loved as ourselves. The second is a specific Mitzvah to love the convert in particular.

The question therefore arises, how do we reconcile the converts’ lack of genetic continuity with the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and their total acceptance into the Jewish fold?

THE SOUL’S DNA

The answer lies in a better understanding of our relationship to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Whatever genetic material they possessed cannot possibly be preserved undiluted beyond a few generations. In addition, the Talmud states that our feeling for our progeny does not normally extended beyond four generations. It is therefore hard to imagine why the Patriarchs and Matriarchs would feel such closeness to the Jewish people who are hundreds of generations away from them. Moreover, they are also the progenitors of many other groups of people. Yet, nowhere does the Torah ascribe to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs a feeling of love and responsibility for all their descendants. Their love for us is rather selective.

And just as it is hard to imagine how their love can extend down to us, it is equally challenging for us to feel close to our ancestors going back so many generations.

It is therefore obvious that our relationship with the Patriarchs and Matriarchs is not just based on biology but rather on the unique souls they possessed and bequeathed to their descendants. What we have inherited from them is spiritual DNA, embedded in our souls, which translates into the attitudes that even the most unaffiliated Jew possesses innately.

This soul, which everyone born Jewish possesses, is shared by all those who have undergone Halachic conversion. The conversion process, according to the great 19th century Sephardic sage known as the Chida, is actually a process of discovery. In it the convert discovers that he or she has always possessed a soul with the imprimatur, “Descendant of Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah” etched in its fabric.

One can still mount an argument that the convert’s relationship to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs is less pronounced than it is for those who were born Jewish. After all, he or she is not biologically connected and did not share in the Jewish people’s history.

DIRECT LINE TO G-D

Maimonides, in one of his celebrated letters to Ovadia the convert, turned this argument on its head. After explaining that he may refer to Avraham as his father and identify with all of the experiences of the Jewish people, he concludes with the famous words:

“Do not consider your [Ovadia’s] origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, you derive from Him through whose word the world was created. As is said by Isaiah: ‘One shall say, I am G-d’s, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob’ (Is. 44:5).”

Maimonides stated that while our devotion to Judaism is primarily based on our receiving the tradition from our parents and they from their parents, all the way back to the original progenitors of the Jewish people, the convert seeks and discovers his or her relationship with G-d directly.

In other words, the convert enjoys a unique status. On the one hand, he or she has become an integral part of the Jewish people and shares their past tragedy and salvation. On the other hand, because the convert’s physical connection is less self-evident (they are not biological descendants of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs) they compensate for this by their more direct connection with G-d.

Now we can better understand Yisro’s ambivalence as he joined the Jewish people. Yisro did not know what his status would be as a converted pagan. After all, he did not share their DNA (although a descendant of Avraham, he did not descend from Yitzchak and Yaakov). More significantly, he had not shared their formative experiences in Egypt. If Judaism is understood to revolve around our shared experience as slaves and our liberation, how could Yisro feel that he would be fully accepted since he had not shared that experience?

This answers the question we initially posed above: why did the Torah quote Yisro as mentioning Moshe separately from his mention of the Jewish people? Like Yisro, Moshe was an outsider in terms of the collective Jewish experience. First, as a member of the Tribe of Levi he was not enslaved. All the pain and suffering visited upon the Jewish people did not apply to the Levites. Furthermore, Moshe had been raised in Pharaoh’s palace and was thus doubly insulated from the anguish and torture experienced by his brethren. Yet it was clear that G-d treated Moshe as one of the People and had an unparalleled relationship with him.

This gave Yisro great comfort because it demonstrated two salient points:

First, when we are a part of the Jewish community, we share in all of its historical vicissitudes, as if they had happened to us personally. We can empathize with the experiences of the historical others because we are members of one organic people. If that could apply to Moshe, who was an “outsider” in terms of his experiences, Yisro realized it might very well apply to him too.

We can now also understand why the Torah repeats Moshe’s reason for naming his son Gershom: “because he declared, ‘I was a foreigner [Ger] in a strange land.’” The repetition of the rationale for Gershom’s name underscores the fact that Moshe himself was a stranger, an outsider, and yet he became the consummate insider.

Second, Yisro realized Moshe’s ability to connect directly to G-d and this made up for the apparent lack of shared experiences with the People. Yisro realized that he too had a direct relationship with G-d.

We can now also understand why G-d waited for Yisro before giving the Torah at Sinai. While Yisro may have been an outsider, he enjoyed an advantage over the rest of the Jewish people because of his direct connection to G-d.

G-d gave us the Torah to facilitate our direct connection to Him. It did not suffice for us to be connected to Him through our forebears. When we lack the “directedness” to G-d we fall back on our link to Him through the past. This is the converse of the convert, who while weaker in the indirect approach via the past makes up for it in the direct approach to Him.

Yisro’s epiphany was the prelude to Mount Sinai where we underwent a direct experience as well. Every Jew, man, woman and child, saw and heard G-d communicate with the People in the most direct fashion. But not for long. The power of G-d’s direct revelation proved too much, and so they asked G-d to transmit the rest of the commandments through Moshe. That direct communication was replaced over time by the transmission of the Torah from generation to generation.

Yisro, in effect, became the model for the direct communication of G-d to us, and serves as an important motivation for us to relive the spirit of Sinai.

In the Messianic Age we will see the full and permanent restoration of the direct Sinai experience. We will all prove capable of receiving G-d’s open revelation. The prophet Isaiah (30:20) declares, “…Your Teacher shall not hide Himself anymore; but your eyes shall see your Teacher.” Whereas Sinai was a temporary and limited phenomenon, the Sinai experience will become a permanent and universal phenomenon in the Messianic Age.


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