What does the Torah say about a convert who wants to turn back? What should we do?
Recently there has been much discussion about converts and baalei teshuva (returnees to Jewish observance) going off the derech (the path). It has sparked at lot of discussion and suspicions in the Jewish community regarding converts and those that aren’t observant from birth. This parsha has some interesting discussion and commentary that is really appropriate for the given atmosphere.
As we came into the book of BaMidbar (Numbers) we discussed how the tribes took their positions around the Mishkan (the Tabernacle). Even before the Children of Israel went into the Land of Israel they began implement order by encamping as they intended to dwell in The Land, and governing themselves with a provisional but fully active government as well. This is because the people had every intention to immediately go up to the Promise Land, it would have taken them a three days journey our sages tell us. We must keep this in mind as we read this section.
“These were the marching orders
of the Children of Israel
according to their divisions
when they set out.
And Moses said to Chovav
the son of Reuel the Midianite,
choten of Moses
‘We are journeying to the place
which Hashem has said:
“I will give you.”
Come with us and we will be good to you.
For Hashem has promised good to Israel.’
And he [Chovav] said to him:
‘No I will go down to my homeland,
and to my native family I will go.’”
| Eleh mas’ei
| Vayomer Moshe le-Chovav
| ben-Re’u’el haMidyani
| choten Moshe
| nos’im anachnu el-hamakom
| asher amar Hashem
| oto eten lachem
| lechah itanu vehetavnu lach
| ki-Hashem diber-tov al-Yisra’el.
| Vayomer elav
| lo elech ki im-el-artzi
| ve’el-moladeti elech.
The Children of Israel are getting ready to move on and up to settle The Land, Moses is speaking of this in the immediate sense because they have not yet encountered the delays caused by their grumbling and rebellion that would lead to their 40 year wandering.
In our tradition many sages often tend to recognize the Midianite spoken of here as Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses. This is because of our rabbinic understanding of the word “choten,” which generally means a father-in-law or son-in-law relationship. When ever a Midianite is spoken of, it is the assumption we are speaking of some sort of appellation of the same person, though different names are used at different times; superimposing the stories over each other. However, in doing so this also complicates another matters, in that layering these stories over each other present us with a problem that Jethro is said to be sent on his way before the revelation at Mount Sinai. (see Exodus 18:27)
The simple answer for this is that we are possibly using the term here in the Torah of choten as meaning a male in-law. As we saw when Jethro came, he sent messengers ahead of him. Likewise as an elderly man, and one of some importance, he would have traveled with other kinsmen of his for his actual journey to Moses as well. We do see the elderly Jethro departing earlier on. But here we see someone who appears to be a much beloved, and possibly a much younger Midianite man who needs to consider his own future. And yet in Moses’ consideration he was quite valuable in the aid of Israel and their goals. For this reason some of our sages suggest Chovav is actually Moses’ brother-in-law.
Confusion seems to arise because once again we are superimposing two events over each other; possibly needlessly. Though this is an interesting subject, I am very pleased to have recently found a wonderful article written by Rabbi Jeffrey M. Cohen that he wrote for “Jewish Bible Quarterly” that confirms and beautifully presents this position both linguistically and in light of our the rabbinic commentary. I defer to the honorable rabbi on this. (see “Jethro/Hobab’s Detainment by Rabbi Jeffrey M. Cohen“)
What I would like us to look at is the incident itself. Why did Chovav want to turn back and return to his native people? The more precise question we should probably be asking is actually, “why now?” And why did Moses go out of his way to encourage, and further make guarantees, in order to have this person continue on with them?
Notice Moses doesn’t leave the issues alone. He appeals to Chovav with the following words:
‘Please don’t abandon us,
after all you know
our encampments in the wilderness
and you can be our eyes!”
| al-na ta’azov otanu
| ki al-ken yadata
| chanotenu bamidbar
| vehayita lanu le’eynayim.
Moses makes a pleading request, asking him not to leave them. He points out that he knows where they are camping and will need to camp in the future. Moses asks him to stay and be a guide.
Now I dislike to utilize male cynicism, but I have to point out what seems apparent for anyone who is thinking from a military position. This is quite possibly a young man, that was aware of the moving and camping patters of Israel. He would be returning to his native people who were inhabitants of Canaan. Eventually these people would come to be enemies of Israel, it has not descended to that point as they had not yet joined forces with Israel’s enemies; but it does seem inevitable as Israel was going in to occupy The Land for themselves. He would be an asset to Midianites in future conflicts, exposing Israel’s tactics and weaknesses. But suspicion does not seem to be in the mind of our rabbis; they actually seem only concerned for his safety, that he should not get caught up in this conflict. As far as I see, they seem to hold no suspicion in this regard.
Neither does this reality seem to come into the mind of Chovav either. What is of concern to him is that now that Tribes of Israel are starting to encamp in preparation for their invasion and declaration of sovereignty, and it becomes apparent to Chovav that he is a guest among the tribes, but he is not being allowed a homestead of his own. He realizes now that he has no right to inheritance in The Land, he is not among the gentry of Israel.
Let us consider this for a second, to put it in perspective. We are assuming here that several Midianites converted to our religion, this is not unthinkable because the actual Jethro is said to have converted and we should not think it unlikely that his other kinsmen would also do so when they came to dwell with the Israelites. Though these were relatives of Moses that were undoubtedly hosted by him, they apparently would not acquire land of their own. In the biblical age, because property and lineage is a matter of male ancestry, this made it very simple for female converts to melt into Israel; they would marry and their children would be native sons of Israel with a right of inheritance. It would be little consequence for a woman anyhow, as no women were entitled to inheritance by right. But it would not be so for male converts. Now seeing all this it appears Chovav realizes that he does not have any possession of his own and heritage to pass on to his descendants. (see Parshat Emor and Parshat Bamidbar) We must understand that in near-eastern culture abandonment of ancestral holdings is a great offense and dishonor in the first place; he had done so by joining Israel. Now realizing he didn’t have a heritage of his own to pass on under those constraints it seems better that he return to his native land, inheritance, and people.
These ideas are supported by Rashi as well, but sandwiched in between these ideas we’ve discussed we see a very interesting concern being attributed to Moses:
“Please, don’t abandon us:
“na” in simple words means a
request (Lit. please);
So that no one will say
a convert gave up his affection [for Judaism].
He believed that converts had a part in The Land
and now seeing he had no portion
he left them and went his way.”
אל נא תעזב: |
אין נא אלא לשון |
שלא יאמרו לא |
נתגייר יתרו מחבה, |
סבור היה שיש לגרים חלק בארץ, |
עכשיו שראה שאין |
להם חלק הניחם והלך לו: |
Rashi on Numbers 10:31
Mosheh Rabbeinu – Moses our Teacher – being a teacher his concern, and likewise that of our rabbis after him, is a bit different. He requests, with respectful pleading, “Please, don’t leave us.” Our rabbis are concerned that Chovav not go away discouraged, that one could say that he fell out of chibah – fondness and commitment to their faith in the G-d of Israel. He did not wish for Chovav to be discouraged and turn away. To our rabbis the concern is to not allow a situation that disgraces the veracity of our faith, so it could be said Judaism is unwelcoming and not accepting.
This has to be part of the reason, because quite honestly, Moses had dwelt in the land of Midian until he was given a vision at Mount Sinai himself and commanded to return to Egypt to instigate the Exodus. He was well seasoned in the wilderness from herding for Jethro in his exile from Egypt, it seems very unlikely that Moses actually needed his assistance as a guide. Though Chovav’s familiarity with Israel and the wilderness were cited, our rabbis seem to pass right over that and make notice of a different element of familiarity:
“For because you are familiar
with our encampments in the desert:
Because it is fitting for you to do all this
as you know our camps in the desert
and you saw the miracles and wonders
that were done for us.”
כי על כן ידעת |
חנתנו במדבר: |
כי נאה לך לעשות זאת |
על אשר ידעת חנותנו במדבר |
וראית נסים וגבורות |
שנעשו לנו: |
Rashi on Numbers 10:31
Our rabbis seem to point out that Chovav had already witnessed and associated with the miracles that G-d did for his people, and the “us” spoken of included him as well because he was there along to experience it. It is right that after all of this he should continue on with them. Furthermore it suited him well to be a guide. Moses gave him a purpose and usefulness among them. The qualities that could have been a threat as an opponent, or might simply just have gone untapped, Moses puts to work in the service of the Children of Israel. What Moses was really doing was finding a pretext to save his life as a friend.
In the final part of Rashi’s commentary, summarizing on all this, he makes note that it is true that Chovav would be able to enlighten the eyes of Israel in their future endeavors. But he also makes the note that the Aramaic Targum (translation) references this verse in the past tense. Sure they had been there to see the miracles that already took place, as Rashi notes. But I can’t help but also note that the Midianites that joined Israel had also already contributed enlightening ideas to Israel; most notably when Jethro recommended enacting chiefs and judges over the people (see Parshat Yitro, and Parshat Shoftim). These people had been a good contribution to the nation of Israel and he wished that they remain to continue to be an asset.
Furthermore Rashi interprets this yet another way, as to what he was saying to Chovav in that he could be “their eyes:”
“Another interpretation is:
You shall be as beloved to us
as the pupils of our eyes,
as it says,
‘You shall love the proselyte’
דבר אחר |
שתהא חביב עלינו |
כגלגל עינינו, |
ואהבתם את הגר: |
(דברים י, יט) |
Rashi on Numbers 10:31
How could Israel show concern and love the convert and the stranger that had left all behind to join them? They could recognize them as an inseparable part of their body that needs to be cared for like one would the most essential and tender of their parts. How could he do this? Moses’ response gives us some indication:
“It shall be that if you go with us,
it shall be that whatever good
Hashem does for us
we will show to you.”
| Vehayah ki-telech imanu
| vehayah hatov hahu asher
| yetiv Hashem imanu
| vehetavnu lach
Further on in Rashi’s commentary for this verse he ask us a simple question, what did they actually receive in the end? It all sounds nice as a promise, but did they actually follow through? He tells us that our tradition says that large tracts of date plantation land was given in the city of Jericho to these Midianite converts, as well as to other landless people such as the son of Rehab the sympathizer. Some even suggest that the land that the Temple Mount would come to rest upon, that allotment of land would also be appropriated for them as well, until it was time for the building of the holy house.
We don’t know if Chovav actually acquired this land. Nor are we sure if he stayed the course himself. What we do know, and this is also pointed out in the last commentary by Rashi on this, that in the Book of Judges the descendants of Moses’ male in-laws are later called up from the “city of dates” which is Jericho (Judges 1:16); we must assume they were there because they dwelt there and had inherited this land according to this promise after deciding to come along with Israel up to the Promised Land instead of turning back.
I don’t think I need to point out that much has changed since these days. The laws of inheritance and restrictions upon converts no longer apply in the post Temple period and in the absence of the full in-gathering of all the Tribes of Israel. Furthermore in our rabbinic tradition many converts and sons of converts have served as rabbis and leaders of our people.
Today males and females are on equal standing when it comes to assimilating, this is most often done through marriage. In this instance I mean by melting and normalizing themselves into the community of Israel through familial ties. We all know that many people convert after falling in love with a Jewish person. A Jewish person marries another Jewish person and make a Jewish family, they can build a heritage.
But not everyone always feels so at home, or like they have a future. Not everyone finds its so easy to assimilate into our people. They might feel disenfranchised and alone. Often times these people have given up a lot in order to join our faith, leaving everything behind, and coming with very little. This is the main reason for Chovav’s discouragement and concern; the concern for his and his families wellbeing. He is reassured that not only does he have Israel as a family, where he is a useful member, but he is assured that all the good that is in store for the Children of Israel also applies to him. They share their blessings with him.
The lesson of this parsha to me stands to admonish us all to make sure that we make a home for the convert and strangers among us. It calls us out to make a place for them, and to care for their wellbeing as much as we care for our own. One should never have any reason to feel like they have to turn away, especially if it’s because they feel needy or alienated.
At the center of what we find in this story, and furthermore presented by the commentary of Rashi, is a heartfelt concern for the soul of the convert and stranger that connects themselves to the People of Israel. We should find every reason to encourage them, instead or searching so hard for reasons to scare them away or make it difficult for them. That is true rabbinic Judaism.
- Parshat Behar (2012): Our Responsibility to Our Countrymen and Resident Aliens
- Parshat Shelach (2012): The Strength of the Repose
- Parshat Shelach (2011): Does It Matter What They Say?