Tag Archives: Converts

Parshat Nasso (5774)

Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

Treachery and its Remedy: Setting things right in word and deed

_img-sefer-gavelAs we come into this week’s parsha we are walking in the middle of something. Previously, in the final verses of Parshat Bamidbar, we began to hear about the tasks and charge of the Kohanim (priests). But now in this week’s parsha we read about the assignment of the other Levitic clans, the sub-tribes of Gershon and Merari; the families who carried and assembled the tabernacle. Here in this week’s parsha is where the real nuts and bolts come together in this story about the establishment of the Mishkan – the desert tabernacle, the precursor to the Temple in Jerusalem. Everything and everyone is put in place.

Now it is very easy for readers, especially after all the detail on priestly duty and purity in our previous book of Levitivus, to just breeze over much of the early text in this section. Especially the modern reader, who is not as interested in the temple cult as much as they are the more philosophical themes that come with later mitzvot.

Quite often we lunge for the exciting parts. Even myself, in previous years I have found my mind focusing on the real attention getters like the curious ritual of the sotah – the strange custom imposed upon the suspected adulteress, a woman who has acted treacherously against her husband (כי תשטה אשתו, ומעלה בו מעל). She has been unfaithful to him. (see “Parshat Nasso 2011: The Ritual of the Sotah, the Offering of Jealousies”)

But this week I would like us to step back just a little bit in this text. As we are going to focus on this topic of unfaithfulness, most often described simply as treachery in English. But this time we will come in at ground level on this topic. Because the suggestion of adultery is not the only form of treachery one can commit. Treachery can be committed by and against any type of fellow, man and woman; and by extensions it can also be committed against G-d.

Treachery is actually a very good word to use for the Hebrew word ma’al – which means to embezzle, to misappropriate. This is understood to happen as a result of people breaching a relationship of trust, and thus acting treacherously – meaning faithlessly and dishonestly.

There is another type of treachery and breach of trust that is just as appalling and distasteful as adultery. And it is revealed for us here in the third reading of our parsha.

Even before we begin to hear about the issues of unfaithfulness in marriage, we are first forced to recognize and deal with faithlessness and a breach in trust in the generals sense, between one person and their fellow. This can be broadly applied, and is explicit in mentioning that this applies to both men and women. Our text reads:

Tell the children of Israel:

Any man or woman

who commits any sins against man

to act treacherously against Hashem

and that person is guilty,

then they shall confess the sin

they committed,

and make restitution for

the full amount of their guilt,

adding a fifth to it,

and give it to

the one against whom they were guilty.”

| Daber el-benei Yisra’el

| ish o-ishah

| ki ya’asu mikol-chatot ha’adam

| lim’ol ma’al b’Hashem

| ve’ashmah hanefesh hahi

| Vehitvadu et-chatatam

| asher asu

| veheshiv et-ashamo

| berosho

| vachamishito yosef alav

| venatan

| la’asher asham lo

Numbers 5:6-7

If we read this text just straight forward we see a very important principle relating to justice presented here. How to remedy a breech of trust. When one acts treacherously, when one is dishonest, when one engages in stealing from people. This is how we remedy any type of violation of trust. Any sin against man (כי יעשו מכל חטאת האדם), any sin of embezzlement or dishonest practice. A sin against our fellow-man.

One is required to confess their sin and pay back the full amount of restitution to that person, plus a 20% penalty for harming the person. All this is paid directly to the injured party. If they cannot be found, then it should be given to their next of kin. If a family member cannot be located then it is given to the kohain – to a priest.

But notice the way it is further phrased, “to act treacherously against Hashem.” (למעל מעל ביי)

Now there are a few ways we can read that. First, the most obvious and the most striking is the face-value statement. That when we commit any type of sin against any man or woman, we are acting treacherously with our G-d. We are acting faithless, we are being a cheater. Likewise we are creating a chilul Hashem – a desecration of the Name of G-d. We are trashing G-d’s good name.

When ever a person among the people of Israel commits a sin against his fellow-man, he is not just harming that man. He is also offending G-d. He is being like the sotah – he is being faithless and untrustworthy like an adulteress in our relationship with G-d. That is the level of breach of trust there is going on here.

Now our rabbinic tradition, it likes to suggest a more specific type of crime here. Tradition is that the Torah does not repeat itself, there are no superfluous verses in the Torah. Yet we already see other verses in the Torah related to stealing in Viyikra  (Leviticus).

With this in mind our sages further identify this related to take a false oath, in order to steal their fellow’s property. Thus literally creating a chilul Hashem – a desecration, but taking a false oath. Which is the meaning of commandment, “Do not use name of Hashem in vain.” (Exodus 20:7) Attaching the name of G-d to a lie and injustice. Causing the Name of G-d to be used inappropriately. Negating the good name of G-d.

So why here, and why again? As this is also suggested to us elsewhere in Torah. However our sages focus in on a specific act this time around. The Rashi, in line with many of the rabbis, identifies this crime as being gezel ha-ger – the sin of stealing from a convert, or an immigrant.

But before we talk about that the ger – the convert, I want us to notice one other point. Let us look at the commentary. Rashi says:

To act treacherously against G-d: [Scripture] repeats the section [dealing with] a thief who swears falsely, which is stated in parshath Vayikra; “… and acts treacherously against G-d by falsely denying to his fellow…” (Lev. 5:21). It is repeated here because two new matters are introduced. The first is that it is written: “they shall confess,” which teaches us that he [the thief] is not required to pay a fifth and [bring] a guilt [offering] when incriminated by two witnesses, until he admits to the deed himself, and the second [matter] is that what is stolen from a proselyte must be given to the kohanim. – [Sifrei Naso 1:13]

למעל מעל בה‘: הרי חזר וכתב כאן פרשת גוזל ונשבע על שקר, היא האמורה בפרשת ויקרא (ה, כא) ומעלה מעל בהוכחש בעמיתו וגו‘, ונשנית כאן בשביל שני דברים שנתחדשו בה האחד, שכתב והתודו, לימד שאינו חייב חומש ואשם על פי עדים עד שיודה בדבר. והשני על גזל הגר שהוא נתון לכהנים:

Rashi to Number 5:6

Notice what it says here. That the person who has embezzled, who has stolen is not required to pay for their crime until they confess. And that is what makes this type of justice different from what we know today. And vastly different from what we see in secular legal remedy. When taking on civil cases, for instance. In such instances people are required to pay the amount back – to put the person back into their right standing, as before they were deprived of their property. And often there is a punitive damage added. So a person settles all of their issues by paying up. But there it is no requirement for them to confess their wrongs. Often people still deny their guilt, even as they pay damages.

Our sages suggest that the process is incomplete if a person does not confess their sins. And I believe that is the most difficult point of this lesson. That when we wrong someone, we are required to confess the wrong we have done to them. Torah morality does not allow us to just silently throw money and make the problem go away. No, we are required to confess what we have done in order to put it behind us and set things right. To validate the reality of the wrongs we have done against people.

However, I have a personal observation. I believe that the need to confess is not just for the sake of the person wronged, and to do right by G-d. But it is also for the sake of the sinner. It is essential that a person recognize for themselves the wrong they have done, in order to make a correction in themselves. In order to lay it out all so that they never repeat this again. To stop hiding their sin in the background, by shedding light on it. Shattering that dark area in our lives. Liberating one from shame and guilt, and all the burden of denial.

As I stated, our rabbis take this discussion one step further. And Rashi, at the end of this commentary, in short makes the point that like others who have no next of kin the amount of recompense and damages against a convert is paid to the kohain instead. He focuses on the ger – the convert, the immigrant. Stealing from them while lying under oath. This is the specific sin that requires this seeming repeat in the principles of fair dealings. Of course, the prohibition against harming a ger is something often mentioned in our tradition, but to our rabbis it is more specifically connected to oath taking here.

Our tradition, is very strong on demanding that we do right by the stranger in our midst. That we do not harm the ger – the convert or the immigrant. And it challenges us more than just on a social-civil level. It challenges us to do right by them, so as not to harm the holy message of the Torah true life. To not desecrate the Torah and Judaism itself through our deeds.

Why is it so important that our rabbis constantly warn against doing wrong by the convert? I believe one of the most clear and concise ways of summing this up is done by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin – the well-known Torah scholar and inspirational writer:

“A person who comes to Torah on his own volition does so because of the beautiful and elevated ideas he hears regarding Torah principles. He made his decision on the assumption that those who follow the Torah will act toward him in accordance with all the Torah laws pertaining to interpersonal relations. If someone cheats him financially or in some other way wrongs him, he [the Ger Tzeddek; the Righteous Convert] will not only suffer a monetary loss. Rather, he might also feel disillusioned with his decision to accept a Torah way of life.

The Ger Tzeddek has usually given up very much because of his ideals and will experience much pain from his disappointment that the people he is in contact with do not meet the Torah standards he expected of them. The importance of not harming a convert can be seen from the fact that Torah warns us about this in a number of places. From the negative we can learn the positive. The merit of acting with love and kindness toward a convert is great.”

Growth Through Torah”, page 312

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

I don’t think I really need to add anything to that, as these wise words encapsulates how this all pans out in my mind as well upon consideration. This lesson especially hangs heavy on my heart, with personal sting of not so infrequently seeing strangers and converts wronged.

And furthermore, I feel the rabbi is right. This text and understanding can be redeemed by helping us realize just how important and meritorious it is to show kindness a stranger – to a convert or an immigrant.

In closing I would like to also leave us with one more observation by another very wise scholar, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. He gives us another reason as to seeming juxtaposition of this section with other commandments on the page. He instead relates it back to the conversation we had last week, about the tribal flags. And how some struggle with that in light of nationalism and the hostility towards outsiders. (see “Parshat Bamidbar 5774: Nationalism: How do you feel about flag waving?”) The rabbi writes:

“But why must the laws of gezel ha-ger [stealing from a convert/immigrant] appear in Parashat Naso? The underlying idea, the motto which appears again and again throughout the first two parashiot of the book of Bemidbar [Numbers] is “le-mishpechotam le- beit avotam” – “according to their families and by the house of their fathers.” The beginning of the book of Bemidbar is filled with the idea of family and tribal roots. However, there is a psychological danger stemming from feelings of tribal rootedness and connection; it can lead to disregard and even hostility towards all outsiders, towards all those not belonging to the clan.

“While Judaism sees the family and the nation as central to Jewish identity and consciousness, it is well aware of the danger to which these loyalties can lead when taken to an extreme. It is for this reason that we are commanded with regard to gezel ha-ger in the middle of Parashat Naso. It is precisely the ger, the foreigner, lacking the sense of familial, tribal and national roots, who is most vulnerable to the atmosphere pervading the beginning of Sefer Bemidbar. Therefore, the Torah commands us here to deal with the ger exactly as we would with our fellow Israelites.”

Sicha of HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein, shlit”a

I hope we all take this to heart as we read this parsha, and make a commitment to do right by the strangers in our midst.

Related articles:

Parshat Beha’alotecha (2012)

Parshat Beha’alotecha
Numbers 8:1-12:16

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

| vnei-Yisra’el

| letziv’otam

| vayisa’u

| 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.

Numbers 10:28-30

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:

“He said:

‘Please don’t abandon us,

after all you know

our encampments in the wilderness

and you can be our eyes!”

| Vayomer

| al-na ta’azov otanu

| ki al-ken yadata

| chanotenu bamidbar

| vehayita lanu le’eynayim.

Numbers 10:31

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 |

בקשה, |

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’

(Deut. 10:9).”

דבר אחר |

שתהא חביב עלינו |

כגלגל עינינו, |

שנאמר: |

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

Numbers 10:32

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 Bamidbar (2012)

Parshat Bamidbar
Numbers 1 – 4:20

Pedigree: Is our tradition all about ancestry, or does heritage run deeper?

Inspecting the Family TreeIn the Jewish tradition it is undeniable that ancestry and pedigree has traditionally been of paramount importance. This is because our Yiddishkeit – our Jewishness – is not merely a belief system. It’s a culture that has religious significance.

The “wilderness experience” is something that all of us recognize as the last place of trial for the Children of Israel, in which could be build a sense of people-hood in this band of diverse tribes and converts. The people had taken position in the wilderness around Mount Sinai. Our book and parsha is thus named Bamidbar, in references to this wilderness. This is where Israel would continuously dwell in the shadow the holy mountain until it was time for their spiritual focus to take place around the Mishkan – the traveling tent sanctuary. Our text begins:

“And Hashem said to Moses

in the wilderness of Sinai,

in the Tent of Meeting:

On the first of the month in the second year

from their coming out from the land of Egypt


Take a census of the all the congregation

of the children of Israel;

by family,

accordingly to their father’s house

the number of all the names of every male

is to be head-counted [individually.]”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe

| bamidbar Sinai

| be’Ohel Mo’ed

| be’echad lachodesh hasheni bashanah

| hashenit letzetam me’eretz Mitzrayim

| lemor

| Se’u et-rosh kol-adat

| benei-Yisra’el

| lemishpechotam

| leveit avotam

| bemispar shemot kol-zachar

| legulgelotam.

Numbers 1:1-2

Now there were certain rules that were to be applied to this census. Every males that was twenty years old and older, which was the age to be drafted to war among the Israelites, was to be accounted for. Everyone was to be counted according to their tzavah – translated as host, meaning their unit and encampment. (v. 3) Eat legitimate male of age was to appear and donate a half-shekel of silver. (see Exodus 30:12-13 for comparison) Each man was supposed to declare his tribe and clan at the time of his donation. The donations of each tribe would be pooled together, once tabulated it would thus reveal the number of people in each tribe. There was to be a man assigned from every tribe to oversee the collection. (v. 4) Thus our parsha will begin by naming these people who are overseers and what tribe they represent (v. 5-15), once they are named the Torah continues by stating:

“And these are the ones that were called up

from the congregation,


of their paternal tribes,

they were leaders

of the thousands of Israelites.

And Moses and Aaron took these men

that were called out by name.

And all of the congregation was assembled


on the first day of the second month,

and they declared their pedigree

by their father’s household.

The names of those of the age of

twenty years old and upwards

to be head-counted.”

| Eleh kru’ei

| ha’edah

| nesi’ei

| matot avotam

| rashei

| alfei Yisra’el hem.

| Vayikach Moshe ve’Aharon et ha’anashim

| ha’eleh asher nikvu beshemot.

| Ve’et kol-ha’edah hikhilu

| be’echad

| lachodesh hasheni

| vayityaldu al-mishpechotam

| leveit avotam

| bemispar shemot miben

| esrim shanah vamalah

| legulgelotam.

Numbers 1:16-18

As our text continues is makes mention of the nesi’ei – which simply means that they were leaders and officers among the people. The people were arranged in camp units like an army, and this was their captain. They were representatives and ministers of the people, representing their tribe. These people had to not only oversee the collection of the donations for the census, they also needed to help identify the people of their tribe as they came to register. For this reason this person had to be someone who was known, and beyond impeachment. Rashi makes note of this with this commentary:

And they declared their pedigrees

according to their families:

They brought the records of their genealogy

and witnesses of their birth claims,

so that each one

should trace his genealogy to a tribe.”

ויתילדו |

על משפחתם: |

הביאו ספרי יחוסיהם |

ועידי חזקת (לידתם) [לידת] |

כל אחד ואחד |

להתייחס על השבט: |

Rashi for Numbers 1:18

On one level we have to keep in mind the context of what is going on. The people are being arranged in their camps, each tribe and their clans assigned and ordered like army camps; with a commander-in-chief over each of them. They needed to sign themselves up for the draft and national military service; this is the reason that they were to be counted from the age of twenty and up and organized in their camps appropriately. This was the primary purpose of the census.

But these leaders weren’t just simply providing their individual names, and standing on their own merit and notoriety. As representatives of the congregation and the law they were required to adhere to the law by proving their lineage both with documentation and witnesses of their birth. One person selected from each tribe was called up, these kru’im (spelled with a vav) – honored and invited guests or appointments – followed a procedure that most of us recognize today, during the k’riah haTorah (spelled with a yud) – when people are called up to declare themselves and their paternal lineage, and then the called person reads from the Torah for the congregation.

These terms are very similar, and their close connection in our tradition one to another easily lends to juxtaposition and joint association for these two terms; which explains for the reason the Mesoretic reading differs from the obvious textual reading. Whereas in verse 16 we see in the actual Sefer Torah (the scroll) the spelling the word as kri’ei (to be called to proclaim and read) the mesoretic rabbinic tradition asks us to focus on the appointment which is the current context, and less on the details of their service right here by reading this as a vav; thus explaining the spelling/reading variation. [אֵלֶּה קריאי (קְרוּאֵי) הָעֵדָה]

Our traditional reading harmonizes the ideas by using a more inclusive terminology, though the actual text seems to focus much more on the documentation of ones tribal heritage and claim. Whereas to most people it is apparent that this proving of ones citizenship is demanded of the leaders, people often miss that this was also required of the individuals of the tribes as well. Their declaration was not enough, they had to also prove their lineage with documentation. This individual mandate is spelled out for us in the terms it uses for census (se’u et rosh) – which literally means to lift the head of each person and consider them. Only then would they be head-counted (legulgelotam). Thus the officers would register the person’s identity, and their donation would be taken to be calculated with the others.

On one level we can understand this, as we have been discussing in recent weeks the seriousness of maintaining proper usage and allotment of the tribal holdings; the land and ancestral holding remaining as a continual trust, that could not be perpetually sold or transferred. These lands were given priority to the ancestral holders before anyone else of the tribe, then to others who wished to redeem it for their tribe and hold it in trust, as we have previously discussed. (see Parshat Emor and Parshat Behar) It was proper that people prove their claim.

But on another level I’m sure that many people are left unsettled by the idea of documenting and declaring their heritage. But in order to get beyond this we need to step outside of the conflicts between Jewish religious movements and Israeli bureaucratic breakdown that probably makes this topic less than appealing for most contemporary people. Even then in reality, our proof of Judaism – our documents that prove our Jewishness (bris, naming, bar mitzvah, parents ketuba, conversion documents, etc.) – are rarely required of us in daily life. Of course when registering your marriage or making aliyah to Israel we see how these documents are necessary for both religious and civil usage; but usually in daily life it isn’t so. Even in religious life today the Gabbai (the Torah service leader) calls up people and they merely declare their Hebrew name (and lineage in the case of Kohanim and Levites), declared by their fathers line and they are thus called to Torah and honored by name. But usually, if one is new or unknown to a congregation ones eligibility is taken on their honor and word. We actually oddly pass right over the question of ones Jewishness all together that would be easily revealed by stating one’s maternal lineage. We aren’t forced to show a Jew-ID card; especially in Israel, where one’s Jewishness is just naturally assumed when at shul.

That is not to say that one who is called up for an aliyah – in the case meaning a religious honor, such as reading the Torah – one who is a convert or of uncertain lineage will not find themselves uncomfortably exposing the uncertainty of their heritage. Converts and those who are baal teshuvah (returnees) who were not raised religious often do not have a Hebrew name for their parents to cite; therefore they are called up by their name as a “ben Avraham Avinu / son of Abraham our Father.” When we pray for one’s health and healing during the Misheberach we however, appealing to the concept of maternal grace, we may refer to one as a “ben Sarah Immenu / son of Sarah our Mother.” One is as an adopted sons of Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of Israel. (see Parshat Ki Tavo) One might occasionally cause a bit of curious looks and peak interest into how you managed to become religious on your own, but not much else as there is no stigma in coming from a humble background.

Now as we look over this parsha, it becomes quite apparent to us that in the spirit of the law we should all be able to declare ourselves; we should all be able to be called up to service at any moment in the congregation of Israel. We should be ready to prove our heritage. Furthermore, we should be fully capable of documenting our Jewishness in writing as Rashi points out. Whether we are native-born or a convert we should not allow ourselves to be squatters, shirkers, infiltrators, draft dodgers, or disconnected from full service as an Israelite. For the native-born we should connect ourselves to our holy ancestry as part of our identity. For the convert we should show deference to the Law of Torah by submitting to its jurisdiction and declaring ourselves a full citizen of the Jewish people through official conversion.

Nonetheless, one of the reasons we can be so relaxed regarding declaration of our heritage today is that for the most part few of us are aware of our tribal ancestry, apart from the Kohanim and Levities. For the most part this is of little consequence to us. In the absence of the Temple and Sandheidrin we are not bound to trace our lineage back to our specific clan. In fact since the Temple was destroyed along with its archives which contained the official records of the genealogies most of us would find it impossible to accurately trace our heritage further back than our most recent generations. Additionally and most obvious to our rabbis, was the reality that after the Assyrian conquest ten of the Tribes of Israel were lost among the nations. Without them being present for us to account for them as well we are not to take such a severe census, nor mandate such application of pedigree. Logically it serves us no purpose yet until Temple service is resumed, and the entire Land of Israel is liberated and re-appropriated to their original tribal inheritors. This presumable will take place in the Messianic Age, in the world to come.

At that time, as we have learned everyone will be given an inheritance including the converts and resident aliens among us in the tribes in which they reside. (see Ezekiel 47:21-23, Parshat Emor) But what about for those of us who are actually Jewish by birth or of questionable lineage. How will we know what tribes we are in? Will we just be counted among the converts and residents as well? The Talmud actually answers this question for us.

“It is written of the Messiah:

“And the spirit of Hashem shall rest upon him;

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge of the fear

of Hashem…” (Isaiah 11:2)

And it is written:

“And shall make him of quick understanding

[va-hariho; lit. and he shall smell]

in the fear of Hashem.” (Isaiah 11:3)

Raba said:

“He smells [a man] and judges”

(Isaiah 11:3);

as it is written:

“And he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes

[…neither reprove after the hearing of his ears…]

Yet with righteousness shall he judge the poor,

and decide equity for the suffering of the Land.”

(Isaiah 11:3-4)

משיח דכתיב : |

ונחה עליו רוח ה’ |

רוח חכמה ובינה |

רוח עצה וגבורה |

רוח דעת ויראת |

ה’ וגו’ (ישעיהו יא) |

וכתיב: |

והריחו |


ביראת ה’ (ישעיהו יא)… |

רבא אמר: |

דמורח ודאין |

(ישעיהו יא) |

דכתיב: |

ולא למראה עיניו ישפוט |


ושפט בצדק דלים |

והוכיח במישור לענוי ארץ |

(ישעיהו יא) |

Talmud Bavli Sanheidrin 93b

When I was very young a great chassid brought this gemara to my attention. Our tradition says that the Melech haMashiach – the King Messiah – in the age to come will judge all matters. Among those matters to be determined will be to assign our tribe as well. Many people are actually descendants of Israel, from the dispersed tribes of Israel in exile. But with a lack of physical evidence the King Messiah will determine our heritage not by documentation, but by binah – by intuition. He will appear to be a quick learn in all matters, because he will judge not according to ordinary senses; not by hearing and seeing. Instead our tradition says he will instead judge according to our ruach – which literally means by smells or by wind, but is also hints at the symbolic meaning of this word, according to our spirit inside of us. Furthermore, the Messiah will judge our true heritage according to our deeds; as it is written in the Talmud as well that the righteous and their deeds are compared to a fragrant smell of herbs and spices. (Talmud Bavli, Megilla 13a) He will smell our deeds on us. The King Messiah will determine our true heritage according to our spirit and our deeds, by holy intuition. None of us will be left without a heritage to claim.

Legacy and Heritage from Our Teachers

As the text of our parsha continues it gives the census counts of each tribe. (v. 19-47) However we are told that the count of the Levites was not be counted among the general population of Israel (v. 48), the continuation of chapter one details how they were set apart. The next chapter, Numbers chapter two, details how each of the tribes were encamped, with the Levites positioned in the middle with the Mishkan sanctuary.

But when our parsha finally comes around to taking the census of the families of the Levitical priesthood the Torah begins by making an interesting statement:

“And these are the descendants

of Aaron and Moses,

on the day that Hashem spoke to Moses

at Mount Sinai.”

| Ve’eleh toldot

| Aharon uMoshe

| beyom diber Hashem et-Moshe

| behar Sinai.

Numbers 3:1

Then our parsha will continue on by naming the sons of Aaron and the tribe of Levi that he was from. It will further break down the families among the priestly cast, determining which families are assigned to which tasks. But curiously we do not ever see the sons of Moses accounted for herein. Rashi takes notice of this, with the following commentary:

And these are the descendants

of Aaron and Moses:

Yet it only mentions the sons of Aaron.

However, they are considered descendants

of Moses because he taught them Torah.

This teaches us that whoever teaches

the son of his fellow man the Torah

Scripture regards it

as if he had begotten him.” [Sanheidrin 19b]

ואלה תולדת |

אהרן ומשה: |

ואינו מזכיר אלא בני אהרן. |

ונקראו תולדות |

משה, לפי שלמדן תורה. |

מלמד שכל המלמד |

את בן חבירו תורה, |

מעלה עליו הכתוב |

כאלו ילדו: |

Rashi for Numbers 3:1

As we see here, legacy and even the honor of heritage is not so clear cut and dry. This understanding of Rashi’s provides for us two beautiful thoughts. For the student we can receive it as a truth, that we are provided a heritage and identity that is reinforced and nurtured in us by our teachers. Their nurture is just as influential as our nature. And conversely, according to the plain meaning of this commentary, it also give us a promises that we are all capable of passing on a heritage as well. One that runs deeper than blood. When we teach Torah to another they become part of our own personal heritage and spiritual legacy as well. There is more than enough legacy to go around, and more than one way to receive and pass it on.

Something To Think About:

This parsha seems to limit authority to only be held by a person who is of notorious and indisputable lineage. However as discussed, since the dispersion of the Lost Tribes of Israel we do not apply such strict rules of pedigree. In fact some of the most notorious Nasi’im – meaning one of the presidents of the Sanheidrin, as the chief-authority and prince over the rabbinic assembly – were known to be converts or at the very least sons of converts; among them are Rabbi Shemayah and Rabbi Akiva.

Related articles:

  • Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech: “Ezra Yisrael, The Citizen of Israel: How the Native-Born and Immigrant (convert) are both considered to be born in Zion: (hardcoremesorah.wordpress.com)

Parshat Behar (2012)

Parshat Behar (2012)
Leviticus 25 – 26:2

Our Responsibility to Our Countrymen and Resident Aliens

helping handsThis parsha is quite short. However, keep in mind that this year in diaspora Parshat Behar is paired together with Parshat Bechukotai. This entire parsha is just a little over one chapter, as it contains the first couple verses of a second chapter. Which is good, usually I can ramble on over a single word so the shorter the parsha the less I get distracted hopefully!

Summarizing the content of this parsha is not that hard; it deals almost entirely with the Sabbatical years – both Shmitah, every 7th year; and the year of Yovel (Jubilee) observed as an additional year of celebration after ever 7th cycle, thus on the 50th year. Here we have revealed the Torah concepts of national economic cooperation, debt relief and inheritance. The second part of the parsha has a lot more to do with further issues of debt relief, and setting limits of debt causes hardship that one should be allowed to endure. Of course there are also a few other mitzvot lumped in there as well.

The Shmitah year – the sabbatical year, literally meaning “to release” – every seven years the land is required to lay fallow in order to enable the land to rest. We are also required to give debt relief to people. Both the land and the people of the land are released to rest and relief.

The Yovel year – which is after the seventh cycle of sabbatical years, it is a sabbath year for sabbath years – debt relief takes on a whole new level in which land and possessions are returned to their hereditary owners. People who had impoverished themselves and thus forced to sell their home or themselves into slavery (which should better be understood as “indentures servitude”) were granted their freedom and ability to return to their homestead.

Whereas today we do recognize the Shmitah year, we do not observe the Yovel year. The Shmitah year is something that is assigned to us by our fixed calendar, it is a mere matter of mathematics. Every seven years in the land of Israel this law is to be applied to Jewish farmlands. However the Yovel only begins when it has been proclaimed by a Sanheidrin. In the absence of an active, full assembly this cannot be halachically declared. Furthermore, there is a biblical understanding to these laws which limits the application. It is found at the head of this parsha:

“Speak to the Children of Israel

and say to them:

When you come into

the Land which I give you

then shall the land keep a Sabbath

unto Hashem.”

| Daber el-benei Yisra’el

| ve’amarta alehem

| ki tavo’u

| el-ha’aretz asher ani noten lachem

| veshavetah ha’aretz Shabbat

| l’Hashem

Leviticus 25:2

The Torah clearly prescribes in the desert travels of the Children of Israel that they are to apply these laws once they go into the Land to posses it. Israel has been displaced and forced to ascend up to the Land to posses it several times. Though after the Assyrian exile, 10 of the original Tribes of Israel were lost; they were scattered or just ceased to be. Until a majority of the Tribes of Israel once again ascent to the Land this law of Yovel cannot be applied. We look forwards to the future redemption in the age to come.

Though most of us have a simple understanding of the Sabbatical years, there are some lesser known commandments that people often miss from this section if they don’t pay attention to the text; but they are not lesser in their importance. In fact for our application, probably more important. They are to pay the fair price for an item (Lev. 25:14), to not harm each other (presumably with words, Lev. 25:17), to not lend with interest to a countryman (Lev. 25:37), not to bow down to a pillar of stone (Lev. 26:1, though this one does not necessarily appear to be part of the context). Obviously we know that these laws are to be applied at all times, even though they are sandwiched between the laws we cannot apply according to Jewish law in a state short of messianic redemption. It is because their appropriateness is obvious, because they are basic principles of derech eretz (Lit. “the way of the land,” meaning proper manners and societal custom) that are unthinkable for us to not observe. And thankfully at this point in history the laws of slavery are null and void as human bondage is illegal and clashes with derech eretz.

In a very plain reading of the middle of our text there are some interesting commandments given to us on how to come to the aid of a brother who has fallen upon financial hard times. Technically one is only permitted to sell their land when the financial need demands such an extreme course of action (see Rashi to Lev. 25:25). According to the Torah if one sells their property and they have a relative with the financial ability to redeem that inherited property (which most often we assume is land, but it can be argued it applies to all inherited items of a familiar heritage), they are required to do so. The debtor can pay the person back for redeeming once he is able to afford it, and immediately receive his inheritance back (v. 26-27). Or else it is to be held by the person who purchased it as a redemption, and held in trust until the Jubilee year when it returns to the original ancestral holder. (v. 28) The person who redeemed it is not to be deprived of this purchase, they are granted full use of the land until the Jubilee year, which was the basis of the price they paid for the parcel (v.27). This “purchased” redemption is more like a lease until year of Yovel, and for use of those years is what the redeemer pays for in this real estate grab. Then when Yovel came around, the land would be given back to the original hereditary owner. The whole point was to not take advantage of any person, but to primarily assist one in need and return them to their ancestral possession, in order that everyone have a portion to call home. (compare to Ezekiel 46:16-18, and Parshat Emor).

In fact this section is going to lay out many laws about the honor of the native-born person, as well as the immigrant. True it gives obvious priority for us to redeem the property of our own kinsmen, and to liberate them from humiliatingly becoming the property of an immigrant while in their own native land. Besides, we are more able and therefore even more commanded to treat our kin with respect as servants or laborers among us; our own people should be less likely to be victimized in our own keeping. Likewise we need to show concern for the possessions of our own heritage anyhow. Furthermore, the Maharal of Prague (16th century) who comments on the words of Rashi (11th century, v. 53 “לומר שאתה רואה / this is to say that you see it”) says we are not allowed to see another of our brethren in suffering without doing something to help them. He even challenges us to not see the prohibitions of leveling hardship upon an Israelite and such as suggesting its main purpose is to make it impermissible for a non-Jew, for instance, to oppress a native-born Israelite; but instead he makes the point it is essentially saying it should be unbearable for us to see a brother in need and not feel obligated to help, so these are all the ways we can do so laid out for the Torah herein. We are to redeem property and honor of our own kinsmen before we go speculating in other matters.

Nonetheless the Torah demands dignity for the Israelite and the foreigner in our midst.

Now one would wonder on what basis G-d should demand such “socialistic” ideas of the people. How can the Torah get into how we utilize our land, labor and holdings? How can it demand that we show charity to others? Before the Torah gets into any of this G-d is going to make His point very plain as to why he should tell us how to treat our countrymen and the immigrants among us:

“The Land shall not be sold permanently.

For to Me, in the Land

your are like residents and aliens

by Me.

And in all the land of your possession

you shall grant a time of redemption

for the land.”

| Veha’aretz lo timacher litzmitut

| ki-li ha’aretz

| ki-gerim vetoshavim atem

| imadi.

| Uvechol eretz achuzatchem

| ge’ulah titnu

| la’aretz

Leviticus 25:23

Now my translation of the above scripture might seem curious to some, but this is the best way for me to put it in a way that is consistent with the Hebrew language. On one hand it comes with the more colloquial connotation many Israelis recognize being said, “your all immigrants and foreigners as far as I’m concerned.”

But it also comes with another colloquial understanding most of us American Jews will get. In fact, I’ll tell you even my non-Jewish friends have heard it so much around us Jews that they even use a phrase a lot like this that is common to us all, “who did you have Shabbos by?” What we are really meaning to say is, “Who did you celebrate Shabbat with.” Who has hosted us to celebrate with them as their guest? And it is similar with this phrase, that Hashem has taken us in as His guest.

We are all just guests and foreigners on His Land, and this is His way; that He want us to contend with each other this way because that is how He has dealt with us. We are dwelling in His home, and on His land; we should open up to help our brethren and strangers alike because our possessions are not really ours anyways, we are just benefiting from G-d Almighty’s holdings. The Rashi to verse 23 outright tells us to not be selfish with the land because it doesn’t belong to us anyhow. G-d is saying “You are all foreigners and resident aliens that I am taking in; thats how I see it.”

As if this wasn’t enough, G-d makes it completely explicit to us how we should deal with the poor and needy among us:

“For instance, if there is a countryman

whose hand falters while with you

you shall uphold him.

as a stranger, and a resident alien;

so that he may live with you.”

| Vechi yamuch achicha

| umatah yado imach

| vehechezakta

| bo ger vetoshav

| vachai imach.

Leviticus 25:35

We are required to come to the aid of our own achim – literally brothers, but in the greater sense and in spoken Hebrew even in biblical times this means one’s own countrymen. Likewise it assumes that we know that we are supposed to come to the aid of the stranger, the convert (ger), the “ger toshav / the resident alien,” the person who settles among us. When we see that he begins to matahto wobble out of control (mat), and to fall down (matah) – we are to rush in to try to help him. Don’t just let him stumble and fail “yado imach / under your hand,” while your hand is close enough to save.

Rashi makes a point in his commentary on this verse base do on the phrase “vehechazakata / you shall uphold him,” that we should try to support him. In other words, we should rush in to help before the person completely falters. A person who has been knocked over by life can often be left laying under such a heavy load that not even five people can help him up from such a total disaster. Therefore we should try to do every little bit that we can to help our fellows in their need before their situation comes to total disrepair if at all possible.

In any case, this is our obligation; to uphold and support our needy countrymen and the immigrant among us.

Something to Consider:

A lot of people will say that it’s a very nice idea, but supporting the needy is just not possible without them causing total disrepair to themselves and their finances. However, the Torah says quite to the contrary; while firmly telling us to not worry about it, this is our obligation. He gives us the example of the Sabbatical years, that G-d will give us enough success and produce in the regular years to make up for what we have lost in observing the years of rest, and then some in excess. (v. 21) It calls us out on an idea of faith, putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to our convictions. For conservatives who do not feel obligated to help the poor, they pretty much suggest in the end that G-d is just commanding us to do something which is impossible to perform; but that doesn’t sound like the talk of “people of faith” now does it?

Parshat Emor (2012)

Leviticus 21 -24

Converts: Equals, or does our tradition give special treatment?

Sometimes the Torah gives us a simple commandment, and then other times it gives us the Law by telling us a story. This week we are going to look at one of these situations where the Torah lays out statutes but with a deep story surrounding it to shed light on the motivation of this form of law. Since the beginning the Torah has been presenting us with unusual case-law that we must consider; it is not just apparent in Rabbinic literature. Here in this parsha is one of the great windows into this tendency demonstrated in the Chumash (the Five Books of Moses) itself. It calls us to not just look in generalities, but look deeply into the issues of each person. To try to be concise I don’t want to give us too much lead info, we should just jump right into the text, as the points we should be exploring become apparent along the way:

| Vayetze ben

| ishah Isre’elit

| vehu ben-ish Mitzri

| betoch benei Yisra’el

| vayinatzu bamachaneh

| ben ha’Isre’elit

| ve’ish ha’Isre’eli.

“And there came out a son

of an Israelite woman

and who was a son of an Egyptian man

in the midst of the Children of Israel

and they quarreled together,

the son of the Israelite [woman]

and the Israelite man.”

Leviticus 24:10-11

As we start this section of our parsha we are told that a man went out into the camp of Israel, but we don’t know why. We are also told that he quarreled with an Israelite man, and it doesn’t specifically tell us who or for what reason. But it does seem to tell us a lot about the person that is going to be at the center of this story, though he is not mentioned by name. This man is a son of an Israelite woman, but also the son of an Egyptian man. From what we see presented to us by the text, he is a half-breed; it sounds harsh to say so, but this is what is explicitly being laid out for us here. More precisely, this is the mentality of the age in which he lived.

Fighting in the Camp: believe it or not, fighting and resorting to calling someone a Sheigitz is one of the oldest acts in the book!

The only reason it might not be apparent to us to read it this way is because at this current point in history Jewish descent is assigned by maternal lineage. If you mother is Jewish, you are Jewish. Your either Jewish, or your not.

We know that the seeds of this mindset goes back all the way to the days of the prophet Ezra and the foundations of the Knesset haGedolah – or the Sanheidren – when the pious men of Israel were told to not keep foreign wives, but to send them and children born from them away. (see Ezra 10:10-11) Of course, that is if they did not convert; this is always the case, in our religion just like the other great religions. Relations with ordinarily forbidden foreigners was always biblically permitted after a conversion, sealed by a sacrament of marriage, this is the case with Ruth and with the soldier who takes a wife in field of battle, (see Parshat Ki-Teitzeh) etc. This is true in all cases except for the Levitical priests, who are required to keep a higher level of purity and discretion in marriage. (see Leviticus 21:13-15)

In the days of Ezra during the restoration of Jerusalem and the building of the Second Temple (5th century BCE), out of 30,000 people returning from exile about a little over a 100 men are listed as intermarried; about ¼ of these were priests and Levites, they are called out. The reason should be apparent. They are tasked with rebuilding their Jewish society from the ground up. This list seems to be a truncated record, containing men in authority and of reputation. Again we look and see parallels to the story of Ruth; upon returning to the homeland of Israel the foreign wives that were dedicated stayed for the long-haul, those would weren’t on board were to return to their kin and the leisurely society they came from. But dedication to and identification with the cause of Israel had to be at the forefront of one’s identity and purpose in order to remain. The mother being the primary person to raise and influence the child would naturally impart her ways and sentiments to her children, and needed to be of the Jewish mindset and values in order to propagate that in their society. Judaism was defined by someone’s professed and active practice.

This issue came to a head during the Roman occupation, when women were often raped and paternity became difficult to be certain of; the mother once again would be looked to as central source of imparting Jewish identity. However, this time in a more literal way. Whereas it was difficult to be certain of paternity, maternity was almost always known. Jewish identity thus became firmly understood as passing maternally. Ones Judaism is defines by who one is born from. And so is the law from the 2nd century CE to this very day.

The Ramban, the Sephardic scholar and celebrated biblical commentator, in his mystical style would express this vein of thought in this way:

“[An Isrelite woman]

is a Mikveh of purity for the nations

preparing them to be just like her.”

[אשה הישראלית היא] |

…מקוה טהרה לאומות |

להכשיר את ולדה להיות כמוה|

Ramban (Nachmanides),

Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Girondi, Bonastruc ça (de) Porta (Barcelona), 13th Century

Did you know there are only two ways to become Jewish. One is by birth. The other is through conversion. The act of conversion is usually finalized with immersing in the mikveh, the ritual bath. It contains 40 seah of natural water, symbolizing like the 40 weeks of human gestation. By dunking in the water, as naked as they were born, one becomes reborn and emerges to a new life as a new person.

Did you know there are only two ways to become Jewish. One is by birth. The other is through conversion. The act of conversion is usually finalized with immersing in the mikveh, the ritual bath. It contains 40 seah of natural water, symbolizing like the 40 weeks of human gestation. By dunking in the water, as naked as they were born, one becomes reborn and emerges to a new life as a new person.

A Israelite women is like a ritual bath – a mikveh, a purifying fountain, cleansing the nations and through her making them pure. But we can also read it another way, that she is a source of hope (קוה), that from her springs forth hope (מקוה). In the days of Ezra she was the fountain of hope that offers the water of life, which is Torah (Bava Kama 82a), to those in her care and thus raising them up in her likeness. But by the time of the second Roman occupation and in the shadows of the destruction of the second Temple, in the disrepair of religion as a whole the Rabbinic sages had to take this very literal; the waters of her womb becomes a pool of purification, the most some could pass of their Jewish likeness was their physical traits so that came to suffice for legal purposes. We have taken a long detour, going through material that most of us know very well. But it is important to keep this in mind the distinction and the evolution of this concept of Hebrew identification in order for us to ask the questions that we need to about this story.

Let us step back to the story for a moment, not ignoring the traditional interpretation of rabbis such as the Ramban. But we need to look at the situation in the context of that age and stage of development we are making mention of. According to law prescribed by the Torah, one is not a legitimate Hebrew if his father is not a Hebrew. Notice that the man is a son of a Israelite woman, whose father is an Egyptian man. His otherness is not just displayed by us ignoring current halachic development and assumption. Notice the way the text of our parsha speaks about the man’s adversary as “ish ha-Israeli / the Israelite man;” whereas he is just designated the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man. If he was reckoned as an Israelite, the text could have called him an Israelite man as well but it does not.

| Vayikov

| ben ha’ishah ha’Isre’elit

| et-hashem vayekalel

| vayavi’u oto el-Moshe

| veshem imo

| Shlomit bat-Divri

| lemateh-Dan.

“And [He] blasphemed,

the son of the Israelite woman,

cursing [the Name of] Hashem (יהוה).

And they brought him to Moses.

The name of his mother was

Shlomit daughter of Divri

of the Tribe of Dan.”

Leviticus 24:10-11

Our text continues with the Israelite and the son of the Israelite woman arguing in the camp. And in the midst of this quarreling this son of the Egyptian man blasphemes, and then pronounces the Name Havayah – the ineffable, Four-Letter Name of G-d, Hashem. In response the people bring him to Moses to be tried for his crime.

Again we aren’t explicitly told why he was striving with a man within the camp. We also need to remember that we are not even sure why he is in the midst of the camp at all. What we do know is that his mother is of the Tribe of Dan.

As we have studies many times before, the authority of adjudicating law was given to each tribe. Each tribe dwelt together, each family and clan together among their own. When someone did wrong, it fell upon the elders of that tribe to sentence judgment. But in issues that were outside of themselves, or too hard for them to handle, they brought them to Moses to hear and give sentence. (see Parshat Yitro) This man’s case was not just brought to Moses because his crime was one of capital punishment, they had authority and the sole duty to act in such cases which lay within jurisdiction of their tribe. (see Parshat Pinchas)

And herein lays the problem. It appears this son of the Egyptian man begins to cause trouble within the camp, as he is no longer dwelling with his mother’s clan and in her tent. As soon as he becomes troublesome he is disavowed, and he is brought before Moses for his sentence to be handed down. Is it because he is being disavowed as a Hebrew? No, not necessarily. But he is not considered a member of the Tribe of Dan, which his mother was a member of. To understand we turn to the Sifra, the rabbinic account of Leviticus:

There came out a son

of an Israelite woman

from where did he come out?

From Moses’ court,

for he had sought to pitch his tent

in the camp of Dan.

He said to them,

I am [the son] of the Tribe of Dan.

They said to him:

Scripture says:

Each man shall pitch under his banner,

according to his father’s household

granted among the children of Israel.”

(Numbers 2:2).

So court was held

and it rendered the judgment of Moses,

and he came out

having been found against.

And he stood there and cursed.

Among the Israelites

which teaches us

that he had converted.”

“ויצא בן אשה |

ישראלית” – |

מנין יצא? |

מבית דינו של משה, |

שבא ליטע אהלו |

בתוך מחנה דן. |

אמר להם: |

מבנות דן אני. |

אמרו לו: |

הכתוב אומר: |

“איש על דגלו |

באתת לבית אבתם |

יחנו בני ישראל” |

(במדבר ב, ב). |

נכנס לבית |

דינו של משה, |

ויצא |

מחוייב, |

ועמד וגידף… |

“בתוך בני ישראל” – |

מלמד |

שנתגייר. |

Sifra, Emor siman14; cited by Rashi in Lev. 24:10

Again we don’t know why the man is amidst the camp, not camped with his mothers clan. It has been speculated based on her name Shlomit bat Devri (שְׁלֹמִית בַּת-דִּבְרִי) that she was a busybody, that she liked to wander around talking (Heb. Daber, דבר) to people too much, greeting everyone “shalom / hello” (שלום) (thus being called Shlomit, in the feminine). Apparently he had the same tendency to wander instead of keeping himself occupied with family matters. His father, we don’t know who he was. Some say his father was a Egyptian soldier that raped his mother because she was always out and about mingling with people, and thus easily victimized.

Others say his Egyptian father was a ger – a convert, a stranger – just like he was; that all people who were not yet identified as Israelites who had left with the Israelites from Egypt had converted at the giving of Torah earlier on in this story.

Either way, be it him or his father as a convert, the outcome is the same. Even if his father was a convert, the Egyptian father does not have any inheritance to give his son anyhow. When a stranger – a convert – comes to settle among the children of Israel we are told that they are not to be oppressed. Though Israelites must dwell within whatever tribal lands they were born into, the convert is allowed to dwell anywhere among the tribes. (see Exodus 23:9) Even though he is to be permitted to dwell among them, and might be a resident with a tribe and clan, he does not have the right of inheritance.

Consider this for a second, next week the parsha will discuss the year of Yovel (see Parshat Behar; see Leviticus 25, Numbers 27) – the year of Jubilee commemorated every 50 years – which is observed with the cancellation of debts and return of sold land to the ancestral grant holders. The tribal holdings were not to be given away nor sold forever (also reiterated in Ezekiel 46:16-18) If you consider it, the only people left with nothing were the convert and the people without legal standing (a bastard, a eunuch, a woman, etc). He was not to be cast out, but he was not entitled to a portion of the tribal holdings.

Lets say the Egyptian father had converted and dwelt with his wife in the camp of the Tribe of Dan, this Egyptian man would be able to dwell among Israel as an Israelite and enjoy the benefits of his wife’s inheritance, but he was not a member of the Tribe of Dan in order to pass on inheritance. Likewise his son was not in a position to receive any. Furthermore if we just take a simple reading, and assume that the man is relying merely on his maternal lineage and not a convert at all (dismissing the opinion of the Sifra); such a claim is still not valid. And even yet if he had converted and was merely relying on his maternal lineage to reinforce his claim; his claim is still invalid, because as a convert one is considered like a reborn person, they sever all former tribal and ancestral claims and stand on their own as an independent citizen of Israel. The Ramban would hold a mixed view, that he was Hebrew by birth through his mother but that he forfeited any tribal rights anyhow by converting and becoming a citizen of Israel in his own right. It is no ones fault or merit in this case, it is just a fact of law; with the Egyptian man’s son is found in the wrong.

The reason this story is so complicated is because this episode might be comprised of more than just a single incident, especially considering it escalates to a capital punishment case so quickly; we know that forewarning is required to be give in such instance. We also have many other good rabbinic sources to tell us that it’s even a lot more complicated than this. The questionable son was not the only one in the wrong, his Israelite adversary was also quick to quarrel along with him; he was being instigated. (Kli Yakar) But here in the Sifra, the case is distilled down and becomes one incident. His struggle is merely for tribal identity only (logically this is the main issue in this story anyhow). The elders drag him before Moses, who does not rule in his favor, he exits the preceding, he is instigated again by the gloating of his adversary, and thus the son of the Egyptian man begins to blaspheme and curse the Divine Name.

Consequently this man is hauled back before Moses, and he is sentenced to death. And overlooking all of this, many people walk away with a feeling of equality being demonstrated by the Torah herein. Why? Because the equality that he didn’t seem to get in life, he got in judgment. The Torah continues:

“And to the Children of Israel

you shall speak, saying:

A man, any man that curses his G-d

shall bear his own sin.

And he that blasphemes the Name Havayah

he shall surely be put to death;

all the congregation shall stone him

the convert, like the native-born

when he blasphemes the Name he shall die.”

| Ve’el-benei Yisra’el

| tedaber lemor

| ish ish ki-yekalel Elohav

| venasa chet’o.

| Venokev shem-Hashem

| mot yumat ragom

| yirgemu-vo kol-ha’edah

| kager ka’ezrach

| benokvo-shem yumat.

Leviticus 24:15-16

A few verses later it is summarized with a single verse we all like to quote:

“There shall be one manner of law for you,

it shall be so for the stranger (convert) and the native-born

I am Hashem your G-d.”

| Mishpat echad yihyeh lachem

| kager ka’ezrach yihyeh ki

| ani Hashem Eloheichem.

Leviticus 24:22

I have to admit the first two verses quoted immediate above from our parsha are not the most comforting, but they are very telling about the status of the sentenced man. He wasn’t being punishes out of retaliation for him blaspheming someone else’s G-d, he was punished for cursing his own G-d. It doesn’t matter if one is a proselyte or native-born, the law is to be the same. Blasphemy is punishable by death. We are not permitted to treat the stranger any different from the native. The Torah does not serve for the benefit of the home-born over the immigrant, the immigrant is not to be made an example out of more than the native-born.

But that is not the feeling that most of us get when we walk away from this story. Most of us, especially in light of the rabbinic insights, feel like the native-born Israelite is a person in power and the man of a complicated origin is the one quickly deprived of due justice; hastily brought before a definitive court for humiliation. Though the convert might be in the wrong, and presumptuous in his claim, he is nonetheless provoked in an astonishing way that leaves us walking away from this story feeling less that satisfied with a fable of equality.

Why so astonishing? Because our Torah does not just demand equality for citizens. In the end Moses had to adjudicate true law in the sentencing of the man for his crimes, sure. But the truth was that it should have never gotten to that point. No matter what the man’s faults were, he should have had a place among the congregation of Israel. True, he did not have a right to demand nor was he entitled. But in the end the folly of this story is apparent, this man was given no place among Israel. He had come along and struggled with Israel through the desert, he had converted and given up any claim or right he had to Egyptian identity (as if they would take him back anyhow). But now when he became troublesome the identity that cost him so much and alienated him from the rest of the world now seemed worthless to him in actuality; if not the entire source of his pain. Add to that the appearance of favoritism for the native son’s case over the convert, this perception added insult to injury even if it was not true. Even though he was yet a blood relative, it meant nothing. How could he not blaspheme this religion and the Name of the G-d who he was being oppressed in the name of?

For this reason our tradition actually expresses to us that we should not just seek equality with the stranger and convert in our midst. We need to act on a higher level of maturity with them. That we not even appear to be holding a sense of oppression and prejudice towards them. Again let’s go back to our other key text, a central maxim of Judaism concerning converts and immigrants:

“You shall not oppress the stranger (convert)

for you know how it feels to be a stranger

since you were strangers in Egypt.”

וְגֵר לֹא תִלְחָץ וְאַתֶּם |

יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר |

כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: |

Exodus 23:9

It seems pretty clear-cut, but our master Rashi makes sure that we explicitly get the point by providing us the following commentary on this verse:

Do not oppress the stranger (convert):

In many places we are warned by the Torah

that the stranger (convert)

might turn around and return to his

evil ways:


The feelings of a stranger:

how hard it is when he is oppressed.”

וגר לא תלחץ: |

בהרבה מקומות הזהירה תורה |

על הגר |

מפני שסורו |

רע: |


את נפש הגר: |

כמה קשה לו כשלוחצים אותו: |

Rashi on Exodus 23:9, 11th Century

Interestingly many people who are critical and suspicious of converts and immigrants, they love to quote the first part of this Rashi. They warn that converts should be taken on suspiciously because even on their best day your end up with someone that is likely to return to his old habits anyhow. Cynical, yes. And completely out of step with the actual tone of this commentary. We need to continue on and read the second part of this Rashi that tells us that we need to consider the feelings of the convert, and that we need to relate with his experience of feelings of oppression and alienation. And with this in mind the tone changes, Rashi’s statement reads more as a warning to us Jews to not mistreat the stranger, because we can understand about people making it hard for us. And if we make it too hard for such a person, they will surely resort to the most unrefined of their former ways.

Herein the Torah actually does not call for just equality, but responsiveness. It asks us to step back and consider the background and personal story of the individual. We should understand the stranger already has a lot to contend with, and quite possibly a lot of baggage. We should not make it harder for them.

And even more so, we need to consider that in choosing to be among the congregation of Israel the convert is left with no other home. This is their home. And to the extent that we can, we should try to help make a caring Israel for their home. It doesn’t matter if we are personally offended by the person and their background. Based on this very text from Exodus most of our poskim adhere to the opinion that even if an Egyptian turns to Israel to become a convert, especially because of their people’s experience and suffering through the biblical plagues and their being host (even if not very good ones) to Israel, we are required to allow them to convert; we are not permitted to turn them away. The Torah calls us to make a home, even for the people that make us the most uncomfortable. Through empathy we should consider the situation of another and temper our patience to their unrefinement, not looking for nor provoking a reason for someone to stumble. Not waiting for a reason to disavow them.

As this story of Judaism progresses through the Tanach, it is not going to remain silent on the issue of the plight of the convert and immigrant. It will look forward to a prophetic day when Israel is no longer caught in tribal and ethnic feudalism. To a day when boarders are replaced with allotment of land according to the tribes once again, presumably in the messianic age. The prophets give us a vision and calls us to strive to bring a better day, and a better way, described like this:

“And you shall divide this land for you

according to the Tribes of Israel.


“And it shall be

that you shall allot the inheritance

for you and also for the strangers (converts)

that reside with you,

who shall bear children among you,

and they shall be like the native-born

among the Children of Israel

and they shall have an inheritance with you

among the Tribes of Israel.


“And it shall be that

in whatever tribe that the stranger dwells among

there he shall receive an inheritance;

declares Hashem, the Sovereign.”

חִלַּקְתֶּם אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, לָכֶם– |

לְשִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. |


וְהָיָה, |

תַּפִּלוּ אוֹתָהּ בְּנַחֲלָה, |

לָכֶם וּלְהַגֵּרִים |

הַגָּרִים בְּתוֹכְכֶם, |

אֲשֶׁר-הוֹלִדוּ בָנִים בְּתוֹכְכֶם; |

וְהָיוּ לָכֶם, כְּאֶזְרָח |

בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל– |

אִתְּכֶם יִפְּלוּ בְנַחֲלָה, |

בְּתוֹךְ שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. |


וְהָיָה בַשֵּׁבֶט, |

אֲשֶׁר-גָּר הַגֵּר אִתּוֹ– |

שָׁם תִּתְּנוּ נַחֲלָתוֹ, |

נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה. |

Ezekiel 47:21-23

The Torah does not just call us to equality. It does not call for equity even. But it does call us to support those among us, make a place for them and to care for them even if they don’t “deserve” it. No matter how “strange,” no matter how difficult they are; native-born or not.

Something to Consider:

Often times in religions when they don’t like someone or they are embarrassed of another’s actions the first thing is to deny they are real member. You’ve heard it before “he isn’t a real Christian,” or “yeah, but they aren’t real Muslims anyhow.” Do you think we as Jews are often guilty of that? Do find yourself ready to disavow people that you might disagree with or dislike?

Parshat Yitro (2012)

Parshat Yitro
Exodus 18 -20

Family: The duty which comes before even religion itself

And Yitro – the high priest of Midian,

father-in-law of Moses –

heard all G-d did

for Moses and for Israel, His People;

when Hashem brought Israel out of Egypt.

Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, brought along

Tziporah, Moses’ wife.

After all, he had sent her away

along with her sons.”

| V’yishma Yitro, kohein midian,

| chotein Mosheh

| et kol asher asah Elohim

| l’Moshe ul’Yisrael amo

| ki hotzi Hashem et Yisrael mi mitzrayim.

| Vayikach Yitro chotein Mosheh

| et Tziporah eishet Mosheh

| achar shiluchei’ah

| v’eit vaneiha

Exodus 18:1-2

Jethro and Moses, as in Exodus 18, watercolor ...This parsha is one of the few parashiot that is named after a person. It is named after Yitro (Jethro) who is the father-in-law of Moses. Yitro is identified as the high priest of Midian. The people of Midian were a tribal people who were primarily identified with the region east of Eilat and Aqaba, on the Arabian peninsula. However they were a nomadic people, who likewise migrated through the Sinai peninsula. If you recall when Yoseph was sold into slavery he was sold to the Midianites, that are identified as traveling arab merchants (Gen. 37:28). This is all to say they were a significant people, a regional force. And Yitro as a high priest held a role best identified as a chieftain of his people.

What we are going to learn as we explore this parsha is that Yitro is going become a convert, and join with the people of Israel in this parsha. During his conversion ceremony he makes one of the first blessings recorded:

And Yitro said:

Blessed is Hashem who rescued you

from the hand of Egypt

and from the hand of Pharaoh;

who rescued the people from under

the hand of Egypt.

And now I know

that Hashem is greater

than all the deities.

As they planned, it happened back to them.”

| Vayomer Yitro,

| Baruch Hashem asher hitzil etchem

| miyad Mitzrayim

| umiyad Paroh

| asher hitzil et ha’am mitachat

| yad Mitzrayim.

| Atah yadati

| ki gadol Hashem

| mikol ha’elohim

| ki vadavar asher zadu aleihem.

Exodus 18:16-17

Yitro, like most converts, is most impressed with how greatly G-d has preserved the Jewish people both on a personal and on a national level. He thus invokes the Four-Letter Name of G-d (יהוה), because he has come to understand that greatness of G-d and to associate the G-d of Israel as the Supreme G-d, the Master of All. Yitro then goes on to offer sacrifice and offerings to Hashem; (v.18) followed by a communal meal in which Moses, Aaron and all the elders of Israel took part. This was not ecumenicism, this was understood as true and total conversion; the religious and dietary barriers no longer there as he is recognized among the congregation of Israel.

When we look at this parsha we should understand that the conversion of Yitro is a big deal, truly he was a celebrity in his day. His conversion attested to the credibility of the Hebrew faith and the openness to which it showed those who were drawn to follow this religion.

As we look at the commentary of the rabbis for the first verses of chapter 18 we are going to see a bunch of very interesting but seeming unrelated points. For example Rashi spends a great deal of time dealing with the fact that Yitro was a man who commanded great respect. He also states that since Moses met him he had associated his own success to his relationship with Yitro. The scriptural text and the rabbis go to great lengths to point out how now as Yitro comes before Moses he comes reverently, but Moses despite the seeming change in positions still shows deference and respect towards his father-in-law.

Through out this parsha Moses is going to respect Yitro as one would a parent. In a lot of ways, this is the nature of the relationship. Yitro apparently was without sons, this is why his daughters were doing the work of the tending the flock and were alone to be harassed when Moses encountered them the first time and rescued them. As the relationship grew and Moses married into the family of Yitro it is certain that it was Yitro who taught Moses everything he needed to know about how to survive the life of a shepherd nomad, a skilled and dangerous life he was not accustomed to. But we must remember first off that even though Yitro was like a father to Moses, he was the true father of Tziporah first.

So when Yitro comes to join Moses, he announces by messenger even before he arrives that he is bringing Tziporah and their two sons as well. (v.6)

Whats Going On With This Family?

The most obvious question that we are faced with when we approach this parsha is, “why is Moses separated from his family?” If we look at the commentary of Rashi for an explanation it gets an even more confusing at first. Rashi tells us that Yitro announced his coming with Moses’ wife and children, while hinting that Yitro believed that Moses might be unreceptive of them. Rashi says that Yitro considered that if Moses wouldn’t come out to greet and accept him, then he might instead be more inclined to do so for his wife, if not for her sake then he hoped certainly for the sake of his children. Why would he suggest this?

The simple reason is, Yitro’s concern comes from the fact that Moses has now become a man of great status since going down to Egypt, the roles have become reversed. Would Moses still be the endearing son-in-law or had he become too self-important for this type of relationship? Secondly, would Moses affirm his Midianite wife and their children or would he dismiss them as illegitimate?

Also, we must keep in mind that the children of Israel were coming to conquer the Land and settle it, whereas the Midianites are among the inhabitants of Canaan. As the story of the exodus continues the tension between Israel and Midian is going to increase, so by the time we get to the book of Numbers the Midianites will be aligned with the Moab in their war against the Israelites (see Numbers chapter 22, see Parshat Balak).

However, it appears that his concern is unfounded. When Moses approaches Yitro he will bow to the ground in respect, they will inquire of each others wellbeing warmly and Moses would welcome them into his tent. The relationship had not changed, Moses still showed respect and reverence for his father-in-law, even though Moses was now the spiritual leader and Yitro the student it would appear, but the love hadn’t wained in the least bit.

But it is still perplexing as to why Moses did not travel with his family, and they are only now joining him. Why did Moses appear to almost abandon his family while he went off to Egypt on his mission from G-d?

Rashi explains to us his commentary for the next verse:


the Holy one, Blessed be He, said to him

while in Midian

‘Go, return to Egypt’ (Exod. 4: 19),

[therefore] ‘Moses took his wife

and his sons, etc.’

(Exod. 4:20)

And Aharon went forth to meet him,

near the Mountain of G-d.

[Aharon] said to him: ‘Who are

these with you?’

[Moses] said to him:

‘This is my wife that I married in Midian

and my sons.’

[Aharon] said ‘No!

We suffered enough regret because of the first of us

[who went down to Egypt],

and yet you want to go ahead

and increase them!’

And [Moses] then said to her:

‘Return to your father’s house,’

so she took her two sons and departed

[to Midian]”

כשאמר |

לו הקבה |

במדין |

לך שוב מצרימה, (שמות ד יט) |

ויקח משה את אשתו ואת |

בניו גו‘ |

(שם כ) |

ויצא אהרן לקראתו ויפגשהו |

בהר האלהים. |

אמר לו מי |

הם הללו. |

אמר לו |

זו היא אשתי שנשאתי במדין |

ואלו בני. |

אמר לו |

על הראשונים |

אנו מצטערים |

ואתה בא |

להוסיף עליהם |

אמר לה |

לכי לבית אביך |

נטלה שני בניה והלכה לה |

Rashi on Exodus 18:2

Rashi tells us that when Moses went down to Egypt he met-up along the way with his brother Aharon, who was also tasked with helping to liberate the people of Israel; the two working as a pair, Moses as prophet and Aharon as priest. When Moses finally encounters Aharon he asks him who he had brought along with him, among the people was his wife Tziporah and his two sons.

It appears to me that Moses would have most likely traveled with a band of Midianites, being nomadic merchants they could have easily made their way to Egypt going along with the regular trading caravans. Secondly, they would have needed assistance in actually crossing into Egypt, as our sages tell us the kingdom of Egypt had a closed border; the land bridge between Africa and Asia by means of the route past Gaza was easily secured, being only a small highway and not much more. Just as unlikely as Yoseph could have made it to Egypt without an escort, it is just as likely Moses would have also found entrance to be an obstacle. Moses is infiltrating into Egypt, where he is not welcome, most likely hiding among Midianite merchants to cross over.

Aharon is quick to object though when he realizes they are his family. He points out that the hostility of the Egyptians towards the children of Israel came about because only a few people came to settle there, 70 persons in total (Exodus 1:5). Aharon says that Moses would only be instigating further resentment if he came with more “illegal aliens.” So Moses instead sends his sons and wife back to Midian, to the house of Yitro as he is the cho’tan, (father-in-law), the male patriarch of their clan; therefore it is his responsibility to care her. Keep in mind that during this time in history women do not possess any autonomy, they are always answered and cared for by a male. If not their father or husband, then by another relative in their absence.

Now generally when someone divorced a wife, the custom was to send them back to their father’s house. Had Moses intended to end their marriage, or was he still her cha’tan; her husband, her man?

This is a real issue between them, as Moses and Tziporah had already suffered problems in their marriage related to Moses being seemingly more caught up in his task for G-d than showing concern for his own family. Immediately after the burning bush Moses and her would already face a crisis, as G-d had sought to kill their son because Moses had failed to circumcise him on their way down to Egypt. Tzipporah instead would perform it herself, saving his life. However, his lack of concern in the matter left her noticeably angry with him as she threw the foreskin at his feet; with her saying “ki chatan damim atah li / for you are a bloody husband to me.” (Exodus 4:25) One can only imagine how deep this sense of neglect and rejection ran. How relevant were they as family when Moses did not show concern to bring his son under the symbol of the covenant, almost like he is illegitimate?

In the end it appears that this fear and paranoia was unfounded, Moses still cared for them when they were reunited. But that doesn’t mean that this family still didn’t have some serious issues to work out. In our study of Parshat Shoftim we discussed how Yitro gave Moses advice on appointing judges and magistrates to hear cases for him, delegating so that he would not be overwhelmed settling all the matters of the people. Though Yitro’s words of wisdom offer a benefit to Moses, it wasn’t just to make his life easier; he expected better for his daughter and grandchildren. Moses could not fulfill his responsibility of husband and father while micromanaging the whole nation of Israel.

Moses, is truly “the most humble of men” as the Torah tells us (Numbers 12:3). Most people would resent having to take correction from the in-law. Furthermore, Yitro was now just a commoner among Israel, holding no position, and correcting him in his home and congregation; nonetheless Moses would take his correction to heart.

The reason the rabbis are forced to have to deal with this topic is because unlike other religions, abandoning your family for the call of G-d or in pursuit of asceticism is unthinkable in Judaism. Buddha abandoned the family he fathered and was rewarded with enlightenment. Jesus tells people that if one is not willing to reject their family for him then you are not worth of G-d. And those types of examples are not just metaphors, the followers of these and other like religions are not without a myriad of examples of people following through with this type of total abandon. However, among the Jews such a mentality is anathema. It’s a mitzvah – an obligatory commandment – to make a family, and then a responsibility to maintain it.

In the Tanya we learn that one of the human tendencies when having a religious experience is to want to abandon everything and merely connect with the spiritual. To the point that the soul wishes to leave the physical world behind and merge back into the world of Divine Essence. However, it points out that we instead are commanded to go back to our lives and do righteousness there. And in our mundane lives we elevate those things and encounters we have to holiness; that is our task.

Abandoning and neglecting ones family is something that most people and cultures would frown upon. For this reason people often need to have creative excuses to offer for their actions. The first one that is generally used by fanatics is that they know this is the will of G-d because He spoke to them. This reason is completely false, because we never have an example anywhere in the Scriptures where one was allowed to abandon their wife and children; such dispensation was not even given to Moses who spoke with G-d “face-to-face.”

The second reason usually given is that they are the only person who understands what G-d wants, He needs them. And this reason is just as false for the same reasons. No one knew G-d like Moses did, neither before him or after him (Deuteronomy 34:10). He was the writer of the Torah, no one knew the words of G-d, His laws and ways better than Moses. Though G-d called Moses to task, G-d did not essentially need Moses. Others were capable and needed to be accomplished in administering Torah justice in order for it to continue on anyhow. It was Moses’ job as teacher to enable the people to keep Torah, but he was not needed to make the system work. No one is so wise that without their help G-d is handicapped, it was not true for Moses and certainly it isn’t true for any us.

Moses did fulfill his calling, but also at this point arises to his responsibility as head of his family. He was just as responsible for his job as leader as he was being father to Gershom and Eliezer. Not for any lofty purposes, his role as father was not so that he could produce a dynasty; in fact his sons never become men of any importance at all. He was merely fulfilling his fatherly duty because it was the right thing.

No matter who we are, and how important we think our mission in life is, if we put anything before our own family the scriptures speak to us “lo tov hadavar asher ata oseh / this thing that you are doing is not good!” (Exodus 18:17)

Parshah Nitzavim-Vayelech (2011)

Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

Ezra Yisrael, The Citizen of Israel: How the Native-Born and Immigrant (convert) are both considered to be born in Zion

The Double Torah Portion

Very often during the procession through the Torah, parashiot are paired together in order to accommodate the leap years. Nitzavim and Yayelech most often experience this pairing, which is also the case this year. This is the last parsha before Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – which will begin the High Holiday season. We are also nearing the end of the Torah cycle, which we begin again on Simchat Torah thats comes at the tale end of Sukkot

When the Torah portions are coupled together it is the custom to compare and contrast the messages of both; however, in this case I believe we will see that both have a very similar tone and message. As we are quickly coming upon the end of Mosheh’s (Moses) leadership over the people both chapters are filled with fatherly advice and promises being made. On many levels these sections of the Torah have a tone of wrapping up loose ends, which reverberates with the sentiments of this season.

Parshat Nitzavim

As we worked through the last few parsha studies we were drawn into the specifics about the legal system and leadership, oaths and vows, as well as conversion. These topics all come together here in this parsha, during the first reading:

“You are all standing today

together before Hashem your G-d

the tribal leaders,

the elders and officers

all men of Israel;

your small children and your wives,

and the convert that dwells in your community,

from the wood-cutters to the water-bears;

so that you would come into a covenant

with Hashem your G-d

and the oath that Hashem your G-d

makes with you today.”

| Atem nitzavim hayom

| kulechem lifnei Hashem Eloheichem

| rasheichem shivteichem

| zikneichem veshotreichem

| kol ish Yisra’el.

| Tapechem nesheichem

| vegerecha asher bekerev machaneicha

| mechotev etseicha ad sho’ev meimecha.

| Le’overecha bivrit

| Hashem Eloheicha

| uve’alato asher Hashem Eloheicha

| koret imcha hayom.

Deuteronomy 29:9-11

As we come into this parsha we are told that all the people are together in one place at this time. They are standing there in order to receive a brit and alah, a covenant and an oath. Though alah, as we have learned, also means curse we must make the distinction in the application of the word here. They are not being hexed, they are not being inflicted with anything as such; but instead they are making a dreaded pact or terrible oath. As chapter 29 continues we will see that the people are told they were once strangers subjugated in another land, and that this type of suffering would happen again if they people did not hold true to the Torah. Then in the next chapter, we read of the eventual return of the people as they would repented and G-d would have compassion on them.

Though the tone of these chapters does sound like it is inevitable (per-determined), we need to realize the reason it sounds this way is because this covenant and oath is one in the same. It is a contract, stipulating that if things go according to the terms set therein these things will happen, and when they don’t these contrasting things will happen. For those who live up to it then its a great deal, for those who don’t it’s very terrible. A contract tells us what “shall” happen in certain cases, but it cannot be read as what will happen; because that outcome is entirely up to us based on how we live up to the terms. (see Parshat Re’eh)

On one hand we can read the statement plainly, as a description that they are standing there; they are natzav, which as a verb means to position oneself perpendicular. The people are standing upright, with dignity, to take an oath.

Or we can look at the word figuratively as a noun, that each of the people is a natzav – an officer – each person is an agent of Torah living. In this sense the word is similar to an English legal term, that one has standing; meaning one is able to enter into contract of their own free will and being capable of understanding what they are doing. Ordinarily this only applies to a free adult; for example a minor cannot sign a contract and it be binding as they are beholden to the rules of others, nor are they mature enough to understand the weight of it. A contract made by person without standing is void; invalid and unenforceable. In contrast, though we are told here that every Israelite was able to enter into this contract with G-d, even a woman and a child. The tribal leaders and the laborers, all have equal standing. Everyone is required to be a guarantors (Heb. “aravim”) of this covenant, we are liable to the terms of Torah. (Talmud, Shevuot 39b).

Everything we read in this section makes sense up against all the rest of our studies in Devarim (Deuteronomy). Everyone is required to learn Torah and its application, constantly discussing it day and night. If we are required to keep it, then understanding it is essential. As the Veyahavta (Deut. 6:5-9) says, we are to discuss it and teach it to our children and talk about it with our companions; on the road and when we sit in our homes; day and night. This Torah was not left to only intellectuals or leaders, the weight of it falls on each person small and great.

In Israel not only is the common man (and woman) charged with the solemn role of keeping Torah, but a commoner is able to be recognized as a scholar. In the legal works of Maimonides – the Rambam – he points out that some of the greatest of our rabbis were men of humble means and professions, citing this parsha:

גדולי חכמי ישראל |

היה מהם חוטבי עצים |

ומהם שואבי מים, |

ומהם סומין |

ואף על פי כן היו עוסקין בתורה |

, ביום ובלילה |

והם מכלל מעתיקי השמועה, |

איש מפי איש |

מפי משה רבנו. |

“Many of the great sages of Israel

were wood-cutters

and water-bearers

and the blind.

And this is how they engaged themselves,

by day and by night;

they transmitted [lit. “copied”] the sayings [lit. “rumors”]

from person to person

going back to Mosheh Rabbeinu.”

Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Helichot Talmud Torah, 1:9

As we look at this quote we can easily see it in context of the age in which this took place, the average laborer was illiterate. Whereas in most cultures knowledge is held by the privileged classes – the rich, not the workers who were literate – the point is driven home for us by mentioning the blind. The blind cannot read, not because they don’t know how but because they physically don’t have the ability. How did they gain their Torah knowledge then? He suggests to us that people orally transmitted this teaching one to another. As we know it is common among the sages to know both the written Torah and the Mishnah commentary (which was one time entirely oral, and not written) by heart. The Rambam clearly teaches that there is neither intellectual or physical disability that limits ones ability to pursue Torah and be recognized for their contribution. The Rambam’s position seems to be that the Torah was heard by everyone the first time literate or not, likewise they transmitted this knowledge in the same manner, to the merit of all Israel. Thus even the illiterate and the disabled can be authorities in Torah.

But for a moment let us consider just the wording of the text. Looking at the text by itself everything seems to logically belong except for the wood-cutters and water-bears. Every other term and instance has been discussed up until now except for these two groups. They are mentioned in a mater-of-fractal tone and with bluntness that suggests there is a back story here. There must be something unique and distinct about these people. However, not once are they mentioned by Moses until now.

The generally understanding applied by the rabbis is that this is in reference to laborers, as we have discussed. However, as these forms of labor were very intense they were usually reserved for slaves and other bonded laborers. Rashi suggests to us that these people were Canaanites servants that were kept by Israelites.

Though we do not have a previous example to show for, we do have a single instance provided in scriptures that seems to describe a situation such as this during the leadership of YehoshuaJoshuah, the judge who ascended to leadership after the death of Moses. We will read of this in Joshua 9.

As we learned the people were commanded not to make any treaties with the inhabitants of the Land, nor were they to take slaves from among them. However, this is exactly what the people did with two groups; the Gibionites and the Hivitites1.

To make a long story short, the inhabitants of the Land had heard how Egypt and the other Canaanite nations were crushed by the approaching Israelites. Out of fear the Gibionites devised a plan to approach Israel with the claim that they had come from a far away land with tribute goods and money. Though when they came to meet with the Israelites they had nothing but empty bags and worn goods, which they claimed they were forced to use out of necessity during their long journey. Believing this claim the elders of Israel accepted their seeming intentions of good will, and honored their request to make a treaty with them and to allow them to dwell in the Land as servants of Israel.

Though it didn’t take long for this lie to come to light, as we are told on the third day of the invasion Israel came to the cities of Gibion and became aware of the error that was made. Joshua then became infuriated with the leaders for making such a covenant, all without consulting G-d through him. The anger didn’t stop there, likewise the congregation of Israel became angry with the elders and tribal heads for agreeing to the treaty. Yet the leaders still refused to go against their promise, stating they had sworn to G-d. Though it appears that the real issue at hand for the leaders was their own honor, therefore they claimed they alone would take responsibility, and wrath for this treaty should it arise. They continued to demand that the Gibionites be allowed to live, suggesting that they could be wood-cutters and water-bearers for the congregation of Israel.

Joshua then summoned the leaders of the Gibionites and proposed this solution to them, which they willingly agreed to. Thus verse 27 states:

“And Joshua stipulated on that day

that they be wood-cutters and water-bears

for the congregation

and the altar of Hashem;

unto this very day

in the place of His choosing.”

| Va’yat’naim Yehoshua b’yom ha-hu

| chotaiv eitzim v’shasavei mayim

| l’edah

| u’lemitzbeach Hashem

| ad ha-yom hazeh

| el ha-makom asher yiv’char.

Joshuah 9:27

In Rashi’s commentary for our parsha from Midrash Techumah he does not ignore the fact that this case takes place after the closure of the Chumash (the Five books of Moses). However, he is of the opinion that this was also the case with other Canaanites previously. Thus the suggestion of making these people servants and absorbing them into the nation was made based on previous precedent. If this is true, it would explain why such a remedy was acceptable in this instance. Rashi holds a very unique position from the other rabbis; not in suggesting the servitude to the people of Israel, but by theorizing this was not the only instance.

The Rambam, however, simply suggests that these wood-cutters and water-bears were laborers from the mixed-multitude of people that came up from Egypt with the Israelites.

However, both Rashi and the Rambam’s understanding of this has one thing in common; unlike the other classical commentators they both appear to reject the claim that these people were mere slaves. As we know, there were people who joined with Israel during the Exodus that were later converted and became part of the congregation of Israel as full citizens; and therefore became free men. It appears to me that only this position would be sensible in light of the statement “so that you would come into a covenant with Hashem your G-d;” they came under the covenant by accepting Torah living, and professed Hashem as their own G-d.

The Rambam’s position is understandable, the Gibionite debacle had not yet happened when the words of our parsha were spoken in Deuteronomy. It can only mean people who are already among them.

Though Rashi’s position also seems reasonable, especially in light of the continuing verses in the second reading:

“Not only with you do I

make this covenant

and this oath;

but with those who are here

with us, standing this day

before Hashem our G-d,

and also with those who are not here

with us today.”

| V’lo it’chem l’vadechem anochi

| koreit et ha-brit ha-zot,

| v’et ha-alah ha-zot.

| ki et asher yesh’nu poh

| imanu omad ha-yom

| lifnei Hashem Eloheinu

| v’eit asher ainainu poh

| manu ha-yom.

Deuteronomy 29:14

Usually when we read this statement we understand it to simply mean that G-d make a covenant with all of the children of Israel; not just those where were present in that age, but also every successive generation of the Israelites as well. The principals of this pact are applicable both to the Israelites of the Exodus period, and to all Israelites in the future.

Likewise, just as the servants and immigrants during Moses’ day were required to come into the covenant of G-d, so too in future generations it would be His desire that all the people in the Land of Israel also come into Torah living.

Rashi therefore sees the incident of the Gibionites not as a precedent, but the application of an already established precedent to the situation at had.

Though the average Israelite citizenry objected to the mercy that was shown towards the Gibionites, the reasoning behind their objection was most likely not because they despised the people for being strangers and citizens of enemy nations. The Egyptians and Edomites were considered arch enemies of Israel, yet they were extended the welcome and acceptance into the faith of Israel (see Parshat Ki Teitzei). The only explanation for their anger seems to be based on the dishonesty employed by these strangers to gain Israel’s trust.

Not even the servitude of the Gibionite can be understood as an act of punishment and scorn, because it was the Gibionites themselves that initially suggested that they be employed as servants in return for amnesty. Generally when people resent strangers there is a sense of distrust and suspicion. Given their dishonesty, such a sentiment would be understandable.

But it does not appear to be the case once the Gibionites converted, in my opinion. This is evident to me because of the role the Gibionites were given. They were not just relegated to hard labor, being subjugated to the most harsh and humiliating work. No, we read they were also given the responsibility of provide the wood and the water for the altar of G-d as well. Such a task could only be given to people they trusted and believed were truly sincere, as a deceitful person could easily desecrate the sanctuary or Shabbat. This cannot be taken lightly as plagues were inflicted on Israel during the Exodus for things such as improper sacrifices and gathering sticks on Shabbat, such a risk would not have been taken had there been the least bit of suspicion.

Not only were these people accepted into the congregation of Israel, they were also honored with a role in providing for the Temple service itself. Instead of being pushed to the fringes of society, they were brought into the very heart of the Israelite culture and religion. They would continue to serve in this capacity even after the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. It should come as no surprise to anyone that from the days of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem until now, the Jewish people have witnessed many converts become established a rabbis and scholars.

Parshat Vayelech

Gihon Spring

The passage to the Gihon Spring, from which the water for the Temple was drawn

As we come upon the High Holiday season the ancient prayers and rituals observed, we often find our imaginations filled with thoughts of what it would have been like to have experienced them for ourselves in the ancient Temple. Had we actually been able to make the pilgrimage to the Temple for ourselves we could have witnessed the contribution of the Gibionites very clearly. During one specific festival their contribution would be almost unavoidable; during Sukkot – the Festival of Booths, which is one of the shelosh regalim – the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals that all Israelite men were required to make.

Ordinarily during the daily and additional festival offerings in the Temple wood and water were just mere commodities. They were utilized for washing and for making fire, very ordinary and mundane. However, during Sukkot both tree-cuttings (which is literally what “chateiv eitzim / wood-cutter means; they cut the eitzim, “trees” in the plural, for wood) and water would be celebrated. First the altar would be surrounded by branches of foliage from four native species of trees, ceremoniously placed to display the full bloom of the fall harvest. Then spring water would be poured over the altar, a ritual that is unique only to Sukkot; this would welcome the coming raining season that provides for the spring harvest.

Appropriately we find in the fifth reading of the Torah, which is where the reading of Parshat Vayelech begins, that Moses also brings our attention to the festival of Sukkot.

In Parshat Vayelech we find Moses performing some last tasks before handing over the leadership to the next generation, and sending them on their way to cross over the Jordan river to occupy and settle the Land. We read that Moses writes down copies of the Torah and gives them to the priests and the elders of Israel. Starting in Deuteronomy 31:9 we read the following statement:

“Moses commanded them, saying:

at the end of seven years

after the year of the Shemitah

during the festival of Sukkot

When all Israel comes

to appear before Hashem your G-d

in the place which he shall choose

you shall read this Torah

before all Israel, so that they hear it.

Assemble the people;

the men, women and small children

and the converts that dwell within your gates

so that they may hear it

and so that they may learn it,

and be in awe of Hashem your G-d,

and carefully keep all the words

of this Torah.”

| Vayetzav Moshe otam lemor

| miketz sheva shanim

| bemo’ed shnat hashmitah

| bechag haSukkot.

| Bevo chol-Yisra’el

| lera’ot et-penei Hashem Eloheicha

| bamakom asher yivchar

| tikra et-hatorah hazot

| neged kol-Yisra’el be’ozneihem.

| Hakhel et-ha’am

| ha’anashim vehanashim vehataf

| vegercha asher bish’areicha

| lema’an yishme’u

| ulema’an yilmedu

| veyar’u et-Hashem Eloheichem

| veshameru la’asot et-kol-divrei

| hatorah hazot

Deuteronomy 31:10-12

Several times in the Torah Moses has commanded the people regarding Shemitah – the sabbatical year – for which they were commanded to allow the land to lay fallow and to pardon debts (see Ex. 23, Lev. 25, Deut. 15). They had already been instructed regarding Sukkot as well (see Lev. 23, Ex. 23:16, Deut. 16:13). But here Moses gives the people one additional command for the people to observe for when they go into the land, and the sanctuary is established. Every seven years the priests and the elders are to gather the people and read the Torah to entire nation. All the people of Israel, every citizen is required to hear Torah so that they can learn to keep it.

Here again Moses identifies who is an Israelite; this congregation of Israel is described by him as being made up of men, women, children and converts. All of the nation, every citizen is to hear the entire Torah read aloud. Hearing the Torah and understanding it, the people would be amazed by it and be compelled to safeguard its commands.

Surely, out of all the people that heard the Torah the converts must have truly been among the most awestruck. The awesomeness of the G-d of Israel and His Torah had already stirred them to the point that they were compelled to abandon their former culture and religion, and to embrace the ways of Hashem. We can only imagine the honor and privilege they felt to not only be an ezrah Yisra’el – a citizen of Israel – but also to be able to stand in the sacred Temple itself and hear the Torah spoken in all its wonder.

To non-Jews it might seems very strange that the people of Israel would attract and receive converts – gerim, strangers; if they are even aware that Judaism allows converts. One might wonder what significance this Torah and these holidays could have for a person who is not “native-born.” After all the Torah is written in the language of the people Israel, and the holidays commemorate the salvations and blessings of the Jewish people. For Jews who hold on to the promises of Torah, its not perplexing at all. G-d promised that He was not just making this covenant with us alone, but also with those who are not here with us yet. Not only does this promise extend to Jews of future generations, but it applies to future Jews as well. This promise is for Jews by birth and for Jews by choice.

In our tradition all the people of the congregation of Israel are counted as natives, not foreigners. To an extent the majority of the Jewish people for thousands of years have been “foreign born.” Being born outside of the Land, even in exile and bondage. This was very common going back to the earliest day of the ancient kingdom of Israel. For this reason Psalm 87, points out that not only does G-d love the people of Zion, but His will is to know the peoples scattered in foreign lands. The Psalmist lists Rahab, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia; all the places were the people of Israel were exiled. G-d says He will make mention of them all as those who know Him (v.3), and they would be considered to be “born there” in Zion. (v.4) Instead of being considered a foreigner, it says “Hashem will count in the registry of the People: ‘This one was born there.’” (v.6) This applies to Jews born in foreign lands, who are born Jewish; as well as Jews of foreign birth, who were foreigners and have become Jewish.

For the Jewish people the acceptance of the strangers comes out sympathy, knowing very well whats its like to be a stranger in a strange land. The people of Israel like no other people relate to being in need of a home; both physically and spiritually. That is why the message of this Torah and these festivals of deliverance also reverberate with many from among the nations, who choose to make their home among the people of Israel.

As we come upon the High Holidays we should all consider the significance of the symbolism of the in-gathering of the peoples and nations. During the Sukkot services we will read of the sacrifices offered in the Temple for the 70 nations, which are symbolic of the whole known world to the ancient Israelites. We commemorate these offerings with prayers that request the reestablishment of this practice in the future Temple. Though these prayers are not in hopes that the Jewish people will once again offer these sacrifices in the Temple in their place, but in expectation that the nations will stand with us and offer worship to G-d themselves. This expectation comes from a promise made in the book of Zachariah, that in the age to come this would happen:

“And it shall be that all who remain

from all the nations of the peoples

that had gone

against Jerusalem

will go up ever year; from year to year

to worship the King,

Hashem Tz’vaot [The Master of Legions]

and celebrate the festival of Sukkot.”

| V’yahi kol ha-notar

| mi-kol ha-goyim

| ha-baim

| al Yerushalayim

| v’alu midai shanah v’shanah

| l’hishtachot l’melech

| Hashem Tz’vaot

| v’lachog et chag ha-Sukkot

Zechariah 14:16-17

When we consider this we see that Sukkot, is one festival that has deep significance not just for those born Jewish, but also for strangers and convert as well.

The Hivities play a minor role in this story, as they were not indigenous Canaanites; but foreign settlers that settled in Canaan among the Gibionites, in the say way the Hittites of Anatolia had.

Parshat Ki Tavo (2011)

Parshat Ki Tavo
Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8

“My Father was a homeless Aramean.” The story of the Jew, both born and converted

Our parsha begins with the words “vehaya ki tavo el ha’aretz / and it shall be when you have come into the Land,” derivi ng its name. In this parsha, we continue with discussing the laws related to the people coming into the Land. But here we are talking about once they already have come into the Land to possess it and settle it.

We are told that the people are to take the first fruits of the Land and to put them in a basket and go up to the place “vehalachta el-hamakom asher yivchar Hashem Eloheicha leshaken shmo sham / to the place where Hashem your G-d will choose to cause His Name to dwell there,” meaning the Beit haMikdash The Temple. What we learn from the sages is that during the first season of fruit it was to marked by a reed rapped around it to identify it as the first fruits, then when they were ripe they were to be collected in a basket and brought to Beit haMikdash, and as our text says presented before the altar. This was done during Shavuotthe festival of first fruits, which was spring barley festival also known as Pentecost (see Exodus 23:16, Numbers 28:26). Settlement would happen bit by bit as we are told (see Deut 7:22), and eventually the sanctuary of the MiskanThe Tabernacle, would give way to a permanent home, just as the people each find their own home. This was their moment to celebrate not only did they have a home, but also a parnasa – a way to support themselves. They really had it all now, they were complete.

So when this happened they were to go up to the Temple and present themselves before the priests, whoever it is in those days (obviously meaning it was gonna be at a different times for different people).

For a person like me who loves the siddur (prayerbook), this is lovely because it goes step by step through a process of the ritual and how it was officiated by the priests. I don’t want to spend to much time on the process because its beautifully clear. But one part we must take notice of is the statement the man makes to the priest, he says to him:

I affirm today

before Hashem your G-d

that I have come into the land

which Hashem swore

to our forefathers to give us.”

| Higadeti hayom

| l’Hashem Eloheicha

| ki-vati el-ha’aretz

| asher nishba Hashem

| la’avoteinu latet lanu.

Deuteronomy 26:3


The basket is taken by the priests and presented before the altar, then a declaration is made. Now it’s a little bit long so we should assume it was read by each person. In fact the Mishnayot tell of this, as we learn how the people who knew what they were doing and were literate went first to make their declaration to get out of the way, and then those who didn’t went next so that they could be helped through the process. It’s a very beautiful way of showing that we should be concerned to help our fellow through the joy of a mitzvah too, if we are good at something we are then more than able to help another along too. But I digress…

The declaration started with the statement:

My father was a wandering Aramaean.

He went to Egypt

and resided there as an immigrant…”

| Arami oved avi

| vayered Mitzraimah

| vayagor sham bimtei

Deuteronomy 26:4

The statement made would go through how the Hebrews became a great people in Egypt, and how they became persecuted and were enslaved. It goes into great detail about the suffering and afflictions, and then how G-d saved the people with terrible signs and wonders. And then how they were brought into the land flowing with milk and honey.

The statement concludes with the basket being taken once again and presented in keeping with the words:

And now, behold,

I have brought the first of the fruit of the land,

which You Hashem have given me”

| Ve’atah hineh

| heveti et-reshit pri ha’adamah

| asher natatah li

Deuteronomy 26:10a

Then the fruits were finished being presented and he would prostrate before the altar.

Now back to this statement being made, as I said it goes through a very strong description of the type of sufferings the children of Israel went through. It doesn’t just say they suffered, it says it in many colorful ways just how much they suffered. Yet they also went on to speak amazingly about the deliverance from bondage and how they were brought to a prosperous land. Why are they to do this though?

You shall rejoice in all the goodness

which was give you to you by

Hashem your G-d

and unto your household;

and the Levite and the convert

which is in your midst.”

| Vesamachta vechol-hatov

| asher natan-lecha

| Hashem Eloheicha

| uleveitecha atah

| vehaLevi vehager

| asher bekirbecha.

Deuteronomy 26:11

The reason we are to go through this whole declaration is so that we can rejoice, because G-d has taken us from being children of a wandering Aramean to now be a people who possess a fruitful land. Though telling our story comes with a lot horrible scenes, we came from nothing to having it all; so we rejoice in this.

Every so often I speak with my family about the horrors of the shoahthe holocaust and the stories surrounding the families I know that are survivors. Though my family has been here in California for many many generations, they remember the early days of Los Angeles and the Jewish community of Boyle Heights, the original immigrant Jewish community. They watched on as may people after the war came to join family members already here, swelling the neighborhoods with new enterprise and energy. My grandmother speaks to me fondly of shopping in the farmers markets and shops. But they confided in me one of the things that perplexed a lot of them, like most American people, was what the stories were surrounding these earlier pioneers and then the immediate survivors of the Shoah. They had to ask as the people still had an awkwardness present in their personality and attitudes, along with a resolute spirit worth noticing. But the bearers were not willing to speak about what refined such a temperament within them. Of course these Ashkenazim also married into my family, but they still were left wondering

I had to remind them that not to long ago these people were not so well off, many of them came with nothing and not but a few pennies to rub to together. I put it bluntly, these immigrants were strangers and poor and were really taken advantage of on top of all their suffering, most didn’t want to talk about it as living it was hard enough. Those who did really didn’t start speaking of the horrors of the shoah, for instance, until well into the late-1970s when I was a child. In some way I can understand, in some way that’s the way it always is that people can only really get beyond the anguish of it all when their joy is complete and they are looking back at it from a better place. It took at lot of hard work, but as we see these Jews often did very well for themselves in this prosperous land. Now a lot of Jews openly talk about their struggle, but it took a long time to feel secure enough to be that open.

I think about this as I sit here and read the declaration of the first fruits being made, it starts out with a pretty sad start “my father was a homeless Aramean.” This is not just exaggeration. Its not a story of “I walked to school, barefoot, in the snow, uphill, both ways.” Our father Abraham was a wandering nomad. And being a wanderer is something us Jews certainly understand well, often doing it ourselves. But the reason we should give our story is to rejoice. And as we see, it’s a compulsory mitzvah that we rejoice.

But it makes me think. How do I tell my story, am I beaten down and angry? Or do I have the spirit of a mitzvah maker? Either you can think of it as “My father was a homeless Aramean…” and tell “…see how far I have come” or you can be negative and ungratefully ignore just how good you really do have it in the here and now. How do you tell your story, what is your declaration?

The Honor of the Convert: Who’s Your Daddy?

As we see everyone is required to bring first fruits, once they have land and the trees produce they are to bring the fruit and declare. Everyone is to do so, including the Levite priests and the gerimconverts, the people who were formerly strangers in the land. The obvious questions arises when we read the statement that this is about the children of Israel and their subjugation and redemption. The point of this strikes us in the very first words “My father was a wandering Aramean,” and continues on with all kind of lines relating us calling out and being saved by “Hashem Elohei Avoteinu / Hashem G-d of our fathers.”

One really has to take notice because even before the convert is directly mentioned we can already start asking the inevitable question. Everything begins smooth as the statement to the priests first used the words, “Hashem Eloheicha / G-d of your fathers.” But what happens when a person gets a few lines into it and the statement is made that we have come asher nishba Hashem la’avoteinu latet lanu / Hashem swore to our forefathers to give us” and the person is a convert; meaning their forefathers were not so promised? Can one say this? To some critical people it may sounds like these converts are making an untrue statement.

This is an issue that is presented to us as early as the Mishnah:

These bring [first fruits] but don’t

recite [the declaration]

The convert, since

he cannot say:

‘[I have come to the Land] which Hashem

swore to our fathers

to give to us’ (Deuteronomy 26:3).

But if his mother was an Israelite

he brings and recites.

When he prays [shemonah esreh] in private,

[instead of saying: The G-d of our fathers]

he says: ‘The G-d of the fathers of Israel’

and when he prays

in the Beit Keneset (synagogue)

he says: The G-d of your fathers.

But if his mother was an Israelite

he says: The G-d of our fathers.”

אלו מביאין ולא |

קורין |

הגר מביא ואינו קורא, |

שאינו יכול לומר |

אשר נשבע ה‘ |

לאבותינו |

לתת לנו” (דברים כו,ג); |

אם הייתה אימו מישראל, |

מביא וקורא. |

וכשהוא מתפלל בינו לבין עצמו, |


אומר אלוהי אבות ישראל; |

וכשהוא מתפלל |

בבית הכנסת, |

אומר אלוהי אבותיכם. |

ואם הייתה אימו מישראל, |

אומר אלוהי אבותינו |

Mishna, Mesecta Bikkurim 1:4

I don’t want to spend too much time on the topic of conversions (we dealt with that last week, in Parshat Ki Tietzei). But the statement comes across with an honest point. One should not say the statement because the promise was not made to their forefathers. This small section is a well known passage, taken directly from the Babylonian Talmud.

But the part that continues on related to the mother is present for pretty obvious reason to a Talmud student but often missed otherwise, at this point in history Jewishness is passed through ones mother already. True inheritance is through the father as declared in the Torah, but religious linage is defined by the mother. Because of rape during war and such it could become impossible identify lineage in a very definite way. In a male oriented society, linage submitted to matrilineal descent by reason that the although father could be in question, the mother was almost always known. What is suggested here in this continuing section is that if ones mother was Jewish, then he was properly descended and the statement is still true. A convert who had a Jewish mother, could say this. But it says otherwise the convert should not pray this way, but instead in private say “G-d of the fathers of Israel” and then only “G-d of your fathers” when in shul.

The discussion doesn’t go any further here in the Talmud Bavli – the Bablyonian Talmud which is the standard, due to it’s general comprehensiveness; as opposed to the Talmud Yerushalmi, the Palestinian Talmud which did not have the benefit of and extra 150 years for compilation which was afforded the sages in the east. People being more familiar with Bavli often cite this source as halacha (law) because in general we posek (rule; decide) according to Bavli (even more so in the Ashkenazi world), and it has found itself into many scholarly works.

However, when it comes to citing the halacha most often people will cite it differently than presented above, though still affirming the source. This is because both Rashi and Rabbenu Tam state that one is indeed commanded to bring first fruits, but a converts is not to make the declaration so as not to make an untrue statement. From here it appears the heavy weights have spoken and the issue is settled.

However, this very position by the wise Rashi in the 11th century is quickly opposed even by Askhenazi poskim such as Rabbi Yoel Ben Yitzhak haLevi immediately after him the 12th century (see Ravyah 2:253–6). This position would even be opposed by Rashi’s own grandson, Rabbeinu Yitzhak mi-Baale ha-Tosafot (Rabbi Yitzchak haZaken bar Shmuel) who stated that a convert should indeed declare the statement (see Tos. Bava Batra 81b).

Now how would powerful Talmudists come to this conclusion? Rabbi Yitzhak cited the Talmud Yerushalmi.  This might seems strange to some as there is no real difference in the Mishnah, they share the same text except for a couple changes. First the the word shainu of Bavli is exchanged with sh’ain, and the omission of the section related to unique phrasing of “G-d of the fathers of Israel” and to pray differently in the synagogue; but aside from this it is very much the same. Sure it could be looked at from a different angle, but in full honestly the statement of prohibition sounds resolute.

However, the Talmud Yerushalmi, unlike the Bavli has a Gemara (original commentary on the Mishnah); this is very unique, we often would expect the case to be the other way around. And in this commentary we find one amazing turn of law as the Gemara goes directly against the Mishnah. Once again I’ll provide my own translation:

Converts say ‘G-d of our fathers’

as if to indicate if his mother was from Israel

he would say ‘G-d of our fathers,”

even though his ancestors

were not foreigners.

Said Rabbi Yossi, affirmed by

Benyamin bar Ester

sustained by Rabbi Chiyyan bar Bo.

Rabbi Chezekiah

in the name of Rabbi Bar Bo affirmed

bar Ester established

for when a gentile violated

a daughter of Israel;

Matnita [Baraita] (outside the mishnah).

Rabbi Zarkon said Rabbi Zaira,

want to hear something

revealed to me:

For Avraham, Yizchak and Yaakov

was it not so;

Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov,

their ancestors did not have anything

to swear upon but

but the Holy One, Blessed be He;

however their males perhaps declared.

I was taught in the name of

Rabbi Yehudah:

If a convert comes between you and declares

what is his grounds?

‘”Because father of many nations (goyim)

I have made you.” (Genesis 17:5)

Before you were father

of man, and now from here I will make you father

of all the nations’

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi

stated this law

as Rabbi Yehudah

It was authenticated and established

by Rabbi Avehu

as indicated by Rabbi Yehudah.”

גרים אומרים אלהי אבותינו |

. והא תנינן אם היתה אמו מישראל |

אומר אלהי אבותינו |

הא גרים בני |

גרים לא. |

אמר ריוסי קיימה |

בנימין בר עשתור |

קומי רבי חייא בר בא |

רבי חזקיה |

בשם רבי חייא בר בא קיימה |

בר עשתור קומינן |

בגוי שבא בעבירה על |

בת ישראל |

היא מתניתא. |

רבי זריקן אמר רבי זעירא |

בעי כלום |

הוא מתכווין לא |

לאברהם יצחק ויעקב |

וכי |

אברהם יצחק ויעקב |

אבותיהם היו [כלום] |

נשבע |

הקבה |

אלא לזכרים שמא לנקיבות. |

תני בשם |

רבי יהודה |

גר עצמו מביא וקורא |

מה טעם |

כי אב המון גוים |

נתתיך. |

לשעבר היית אב |

לאדם ועכשיו מכאן ואילך אתה אב |

לכל הגוים. |

רבי יהושע בן לוי |

אמר הלכה |

כרבי יהודה. |

אתא עובדא קומי |

דרבי אבהו |

והורי כרבי יהודה: |

The Gemara Yerushalmi Mesecta Bikkurim 3

And in a striking statement we have our halacha laid out for us from the Gemara of Talmud Yerushalmi. We find that if one’s mother was an Israelite then he could make the statement even if his father’s fathers were not Israelites. However, it points out that even the forefathers were converts, who had no one to mention as their fathers, they could merely swear upon G-d alone and yet seem to have made the declaration. But Avraham was made the father of many goyimnations, also the term we use for gentiles as the term merely means they are from among the other nations. This halacha is laid down for us in the name of Yehudah bar Ilai and as we see it is properly certified to be true, thus this is the law; even though this is in opposition of the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi.

Though there seems to have been some debate upon the subject between many great rabbis of Rashi’s age and immediately after, by the time of the Rambam (Maimonides; mid-to-late 12th century) this issue would begin to narrow.

The Yerushalim would be set down for us as law in the Rambam’s Mishne Torah. In the first part of chapter four we learn that a woman and the androgynous [note: I’m walking right past that one, not even go bite at it!] do bring first fruits, but do not declare. Why? Because they are women and women cannot own land at this point in history, remember land ownership for women is even relatively a new concept in western society. Also woman is also not bound to have to keep time related mitzvot, so it is very similarly to when doing such a mitzvah; a woman can perform it but without need to say the blessing (to not say a blessing in vain, and because it includes G-ds name also means using G-d’s Name in vain). And then we read:

Nor does a guardian, a slave, or an agent declare,

because they

can not say ‘which

You have given me, Hashem’ (Deut. 26:10)

However, a convert brings and declares,

considering it is said of Abraham

‘Father of many nations I have made you.’

(Genesis 17:5)

Indeed he is father of all the world,

all who come under the wings of the

Shechinah (Divine Presence).”

וכן האפיטרופין והעבד והשליח אינן קוראין,

לפי שאינ ן

יכולין לומר אשר |

נתת לי, ה‘” |

אבל הגר מביא וקורא |

לפי שנאמר לאברהם |

אב המון גויים נתתיך” |

(בראשית יז,ה) |

הרי הוא אב כל העולם |

כולו שנכנסין תחת כנפי |

השכינה |

Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Bikkurim 4:2, Halacha 3

The Rambam states that for a man, the only time he can not read and declare the statements is when he is not the actual owner; it cannot be done by proxy, because the words “which You have given to me” are not true. But he says a converts both brings and declares, hinting that there is no contradiction about it being promised to ones fathers because Avraham is the father of the nations of the world, and even more so for those who come into the Kahel HashemCongregation of Hashem (see Parshat Ki Teitzei) and come to roost under the Shechinah. A convert can refer to G-d as “G-d of our fathers” because truly Avraham is his father.

How is that the Rambam, a Sephardic sage, and Rabbi Yoel the Ashkenezi came to this opinion. Quite frankly I believe they both had experiences with people that forced them to look at the situation intently. Rabbi Yoel befriended a convert from Würzburg, who despite the halachic opinions to the contrary he permitted lead the prayers as a shliach tzibur (cantor) and ordered not alter the text; a topic he would note in his letters to Rabbi Epharim ben Yitzhak.

The other note worthy note is an infamous letter made by the Rambam to the convert Ovadiah. Now understand the issue for a moment. The statements about promises being make and kept by G-d of our forefathers not just made when making these declarations, they are also in the Amidah and in the Birkat haMazon. If one could not make these statements they should not lead the grace after meals because they could not say the statements as truths, and people could not properly agree with “amein.” The same problem would arise when leading prayers in shul. And if even if one did not lead, by altering their prayers they could be distinguished as different and feel embarrassed. This is a real problem,

Our tradition is very sensitive to not shame or embarrass anyone, we are not to remind them nor tell anyone they are converts. This should be taken seriously, because to tell other that someone is a convert is considered lishon hara – evil speech, gossip. Reminding the person that they are a convert is considered ona’at devarim – hunting one down with words, which means verbal abuse. Do this in a congregation your could be breaking two mitzvot right off the bat!

And as we see the Rambam, who is to Oral Law what Moses was to the Bible, would not tolerate this, as we see in his letter of Ovadiah he bluntly sates:

You must say everything regularly,

and without changing anything

only as all citizens of Israel prays and blesses

should you too bless and pray

when praying alone

or if you happen to be the shliach tzibur.”

יש לך לומר הכל כתקנם, |

ואל תשנה דבר. |

אלא כמו שיתפלל ויברך כל אזרח מישראל, |

כך ראוי לך לברך ולהתפלל, |

בין שהתפללת יחידי |

בין שהיית שליח צבור |

The Rambam walks past the issue of if a convert could lead prayers all together, its not even worthy of discussing so he just states that when you are the leader you can’t change anything. He goes on to talk about Avraham being the father of truth and true religion. How the way of Avraham overcame idolatry, and enlightened the world. He even tells us that Abraham was not only a convert himself, but he converted his other children/ And that Abraham also taught others and took on converts, who also fathered children among the nations; whom he was spiritual father to. In summation he charges:

Therefore, you have to say

‘our G-d and G-d of our fathers,’

As Abraham, peace be upon him,

is your father, and you have to say as

endowed “our forefathers”….

…but the “brought us out of Egypt”

or “You did miracles for our ancestors,”

it you wanted to change and say

“You have brought Israel out of Egypt”

and “You did wonders with Israel “, say it.

And if not, again your not harming anything,

since you came under the wings of

the Shechinah,

and are accompanied by it.

This is no difference between us and you.

And all the miracles that were made for us

were made for you

After all, He says in Isaiah:

“Neither let the foreigner, that has joined

himself to Hashem, speak, saying:

‘Hashem will surely separate me from

His people'” etc. (Isaiah 56:3)

There is no difference at all between us

and you in all matters.”

לפיכך, יש לך לאמר |

אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו” |

שאברהם עליו השלום הוא |

אביך, ויש לך לומר |

שהנחלת את אבותינו“…. |

אבל שהוצאתנו ממצרים” |

או שעשית נסים לאבותינו“, |

אם רצית לשנות ולומר |

שהוצאת את ישראל ממצרים” |

ושעשית נסים עם ישראל“, אמור. |

ואם לא שנית, אין בכך הפסד כלום, |

מאחר שנכנסת תחת כנפי |

השכינה |

ונלווית אליו, |

אין כאן הפרש בינינו ובינך. |

וכל הנסים שנעשו כאילו לנו |

ולך נעשו. |

הרי הוא אומר בישעיה: |

ואל יאמר בן הנכר הנלוה |

אל הלאמר |

הבדל יבדילני המעל |

עמווגו‘ (ישעיהו נו, ג) |

אין שום הפרש כלל בינינו |

ובינך לכל דבר. |

The Rambam has a striking and clear position. This would be enough to settle the issue for Sephardim permanently. It would later be affirmed by the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) of Rabbi Yosef Karo (the Sephardic master), and would not be objected by the Rema (who wrote the Ashkenazi glosses). And thus the issue ends in the 16th century.

Those opinions that arise now are merely out of step based on a minority opinion who are not aware of the halacha due to the uniqueness of its source. In my estimation the only real resistance left is a few Ashkenzi sources that are not accustomed to poskim of Yerushalmi as much as Sephardim who widely rely on it, and thus have a very different world view of “Minhag mevattel Halakhah – custom nullifies law” which is prevalent in Talumud Yerushalmi, but resisted in Talmud Balvi despite its often tendency to deviate from this position which itself is bound by it’s own version of this dictum in the famed Babylonian Talmud which reads, “Minhag l’Yisrael torat hi / the tradition of Israel is Torah law”; but again, that’s not what I’m here to talk about. 😉

I write all this to say that within Judaism it has long been well established as a fact of law that our brothers and sisters who are converts are completely equal. We are not to distinguished between ourselves and them at all. After all we are all children of a convert, his name is Avram Aveinu – Abraham our father; the “av hamon goyim / the father of many nations.” He is the father of all who to dwell among the people and Presence of the G-d of Israel.

Parshat Ki Teitzei (2011)

Parshat Ki Teitzei
Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

An Exploration of Conversion through the Experience of Special Women

This study is dedicated to all the other people who work hard and struggle daily in the pursuit of being part of the Jewish people. All you Jews by choice, this one is for you!

As we come into the weeks parsha, we walk in after the discussion of the establishment of the centralized government, and the local judiciary discussed in Parshat Shoftim. This is an active system established throughout all levels of the citizenry. This citizenship, to be a member of Kahel Hashem – the Congregation of Hashem – is something that we are going to discuss in this parsha. In this section we are going to read about central commands relating to Torah true living, and their symbols such at tzitzit.

But even more importantly this parsha is going to deal with the issues of what identifies a citizen and how they are to be dealt with in a society of order. Though of course if we are going to talk about citizenship we at some point have to talk about what makes a person a citizen, and how to deal with non-citizens in this society.

We must understand that at this point in history religion and nationality are synonymous. This is not unique, this is generally the case among the peoples and nations-states; each of them following after their own religion. When one joined the society, they also joined the religion as it was central to their way of living.

In this parsha we begin to deal with the topic of people joining this Kahel Hashem – this Congregation of the L-rd. This is not because people have not joined in the nation of Israel up until now, most certainly we know that others joined in with the Israelites. This goes all the way back to exodus, where we read “gam erev rav alah itam / and a mixed multitude went out with them.” Note, this may seem controversial but this can also mean they went up with a crowd of Arabs, yes as this term also is used of the merchant “mixed people” of Arabian origins sometimes known as the Mereb (see 1 Kings 10:15). Some of these people were convicted in their hearts to repent and join with the nation of Israel. However, they still appear to me to have remained independent and did not assimilate right away because in Numbers 11:4 during the complaining over food during the desert journey they were identified distinctively for their role in the chaos.

However, here in Parshat Ki Teitzei we begin to see how this is going to work once people go into the land. Obviously one would expect that many of the people who went up with the children of Israel were themselves escaping from bondage and persecution. I believe it is for this reason in this section we are also going to read about the mitzvot relating to the runaway slave. Unlike the charters of the nations that we know of from that age and region that ensure return of such fugitives, our Torah commands that no one is to wrong him and he can live where ever he likes among the settlements of Israel as a free man. (Deut. 23:16-17)

Though first, here in this parsha we see the doors being made wide open for people to become full Israelites. But what were the restrictions upon joining? It should be no surprise to us those in close relation to the nation such at the Edomites would be extended this welcome, even though they were not friendly they were relatives. But it surprises many to find that the Egyptians were also given this welcoming hand, the reason given is because they were once strangers in their land. (Deut. 23:8:). Then we read that them and their children, and children’s children were also welcomed into the tribes. (v.9)

But before we get there, the Torah first tells us who is not welcome. We are told, that the Ammonites and Moabites are not allowed unto the tenth generation. And not even allowed to enter or draw close (lo yavo) to the Congregation of Hashem. We read it is because they did not meet the people with bread and water (v.4), but instead sought out a curse against them. (v.5) Actually, when we studied this in Parshat Balak and Parshat Chukat we learned that the people were not asking for anything for free, they actually asked to pay for goods, water and passage but were instead turned upon with hostility. We then read that because G-d loved Israel the curse was turned around for a blessing. (v.6) Then we also read a very striking and definite command:

“Do not seek their peace

or their well-being

all your days, forever.”

| Lo tiderosh shelomam

| v’tovatam

| kol yameicha, l’olam.

Deuteronomy 23:7

The children of Israel are commanded to not seek to make a treaty with them, to not even given them audience to hear them in their time of need. Not just in the immediate generation, but forever.

Now this is going to be an interesting issue pointed out by the rabbis. We can all look at the situation, especially when everything is juxtaposed together as it is, and be confused at how there is such a harsh sentence laid out for the Ammonites and Moabites and yet they are commanded to show empathy for the Egyptians that oppressed them brutally for hundreds of years. But when discussed by the greats such as Rashi, it is explained that even though there were tribal hostilities with Edom and there was physical persecution by the Egyptians, these oppressors only went so far as to seek to harm their bodies. However, when it came to the Moabites and Ammonites they sought to harm the people spiritually in seeking a curse upon Israel and to degrade them with idolatry in order to bring harm upon them. Its like this; Egyptians tried to destroy the body, the Moabites tried to destroy the soul!

The Queen Mum of Coverts: Ruth, the former Moabite

For all the amount of commentary there is when it comes to the topic of who is permitted to convert and who is not, there is one thing that is told to us in certainty and that is the Moabites are not to be allowed to approach the Congregation of Hashem. This issue should be very problematic for the Torah student, because we do actually know of one women who was a Moabite who became an Israelite, in fact not just any Israelite but joined among the people of Yehudah (Judah)– thus becoming in every sense a Jew. The Book of Ruth in the Tanach is entirely about this amazingly unique and beautiful story. Yet for having a book dedicated to it, when reading through the Chumash we do not see the rabbis going out of their way to answer for what seems like a significant contradiction.

But I think if we look a bit at the story of Ruth and contrast it to the situation at hand we don’t need too much suggestions from the rabbis, nor need to rely on much Midrash to fill in the story for us. Let us touch on it for a few minutes.

We are told that a man by the name of Elimelech and his wife Naomi, along with their two sons Machlon and Chilyon had gone to the country of Moav (Moab) during a famine. They were from Beit-Lechem (Bethlehem) in the tribe of Yehudah, which quite close by. Elimelech ended up dying there, along with his two sons. We assume that the sons died of poor health, which is hinted at by their names. We are told that they stayed for about ten years, long enough for each of the sons to marry a Moabite wife.

Again, how can this be. First off we learn in the Torah that there is a general prohibition against marrying gentiles (goyim) understood. However when we actually read the prohibition in Deut. 7:1-3 we told that we are not to marry our sons or daughter to any of the seven Canaanite tribes that inhabit the land. Yes, it even counts them out “sheva goyim / seven nations.” In the strictest sense, they were not violating this prohibition.

And furthermore, unlike the prohibition of our parsha, Moabites did not approach the Congregation of Hashem, it was quite the other way around. These holy Jewish men came out of necessity to a strange land and they were welcomed in this time. Even though these men’s very names said they were ill men, or as we would say disabled, they were given wives which we should also remember in this day comes with a dowry. We do not even find that these Jews needed to convert to find such kindness among the people because when their wives are told by Naomi, the matriarch of the family and only survivor, to return home to their mothers house and their gods it was obviously because in their homes they only worshiped the G-d of Israel.

Naomi sought to return to her own people, being alone and no longer having anyone to care for nor anyone to provide for her after her sons died. She encouraged her daughters-in-law to return to their own kin and even remarry. Nonetheless we read that they did not want to leave Naomi and wept bitterly at the very thought. In the end Naomi persuaded one of the women to return to her own people, but the other named Ruth would not go. Naomi would spend a good part of a chapter trying to encourage these young women to return, especially Ruth after the other Orpha had already gone. But Ruth gives one of the most stirring commitments in all of the scriptures:

“And Ruth said:

‘Do not urge me to leave you,

to turn away from following after you.

For where you go, I will go

and your people will by my people

and you G-d, my G-d.

Where you die I will die

and be buried there.

Thus may Hashem do to me,

this and more

if death doesn’t causes us to part.’

When she saw that she was determined

to follow her

she departing, speaking to her.”

| V’omeret Rut:

| al-fif’egi-vi

| l’azve’ach lashuv may’achar’aich.

| ki el-asher tailechi ailaich

| uva’asher talini amaich ami,

| v’ailohaich elohai.

| Ba’asher tamuti amuti,

| vsham ekaveir;

| koh yaaseh Hashem li,

| v’koch yosif,

| ki ha-mavet yafrid baini uvainaich.

| Vateiret ki mitameiteit hi

| laleicheit itah,

| vateichdal, l’dabeir eileiha.

Ruth 1:16-18

From this Judaism gets its tradition to turn away potential convert at least three times. And thereafter if they still want to join with us, it is then permissible. We are given this example of welcoming par excellence from this young lady that choose to join another people and show steadfast dedication to the G-d of Israel.

It was not for reason of being well off, in fact Noami was now poor and destitute. We clearly see that they went up in need of bread, and even then gleaned from the fields as impoverished people. But her commitment was to stay, even to death. This is what I believe it is to be a true Jew, to be a one that is willing go through hard times with the Jewish people, that decided that their lot be the same of ours, that if death comes to the Jewish people it also comes to them.

And thus we read that Ruth returns to Beit-Lechem with Noami, as part of her own family. This story stands as an amazing testament of the bonds of sisterhood, in a male oriented bible; and a stirring love affair. In the end Ruth married a distinguished man from Naomi’s clan and was redeemed as a widowed wife according to the custom of Israel known as the yibum – the levirate marriage (see Deut. 25). This was declared and certified at the courts at the gates of the city who adjudicated law as we learned in last weeks parsha (see Parshat Shoftim).

Now though I don’t want to get too much into the story or Ruth and Naomi, as it truly demands a study of its own, we must understand that Boaz was not the only possible redeemer. There was another clansmen first in line. However, it appears very clearly that because she was Maoviyah – or as the classical bibles say Moabitish (see Ruth 2:6, were the term is first used of her once in the Land) that she not considered in proceedings of the estate. If ill will didn’t have any sway in her being over looked, at the very least we learn the other man was married and could not remarry without causing harm to his estate. Apparently it was clear that Noami’s sons married wives according to the benevolence of Moav, but that did not mean here in Israel the wife was considered a complete convert up until now, shes was still a little bit Moabite. Boaz takes a gamble and recognizes her and uses a mitzvah, the symbols of yibum and chalitzah (with the sandal) to have her recognized as a true Jewess, and his wife.

So too today people use a mitzvah to show that they are truly a Jewish person once they have joined; as Jewish people do Jewish things. Most often this is by immersing in a mikveh – a ritual spring bath in order to symbolize purification and rebirth, and circumcision for men. For one that converted as a child it might be being called to the Torah for their bar mitzvah – they might have lived as Jews up until now but here they have to made the choice and perform a Jewish rite themselves. So too Ruth’s coming of age came in the mitzvot related to her unique marriage.

The reason that Moabites are not permitted to approach Israel in this case were invalid, her people were the exception to the rule in doing good to these sons of Israel both by helping their physical needs and respecting their spiritual identity. And Ruth, this Moabitish woman did not approach the congregation for her own well being; her case was heard for the well being of the entire clan of Elimelech, and redeeming honor to Noami her matriarch. By submitting to Torah law she was showing where her dedication was. She could no longer be considered anything else other than a true Jewess, this was now her true family.

The Tomb of Ruth and YeshaiThis single conversion, through this single mitzvah of marriage resulted in not just bringing honor to Naomi. Ruth and Boaz had a child, whom they raised as heir to Naomi’s clan and also brought great honor to all of Israel. As we read this son was named Obed, who was the father of Yeshai (Jessie), who was the father of David, King of Israel. (see Ruth 4) The great king that would establish Yerushalayim as our eternal capital would come from this beautiful marriage to a former Moabite woman named Ruth. You can visit her near burial spot in the first capital of Israel, in Hevron buried near the resting place of Yeshai.

The simple answer folks, she was able to be married into the Jewish people because she was no longer a Moabite anymore. She was a new person! Though there were great barriers to converting such a woman this situation shows us that there are indeed exceptions to the rule. Situations and their uniqueness needs to be taken into account. Creative ways should be found in order to welcome those who cast their lot with the Jewish people to be properly recognized, as honoring them brings honor to all Israel! But I for one use this definition, that those whose choose their fate to be among the people of Israel are truly part of our people.

The War Wife

We have had a long study through the details of biblical conversion, but I think its really important that we take a look at another strange example of how one was converted in the Torah. This unique and archaic way of looking at things really needs to not be looked over. One, so that we see how much we have progressed in human development that war and slavery are atrocities in our world and not the norm. Two, so that we can see get some other hints at the thoughts in the mind of those engaging in conversion.

As we were taught the people were not to marry the Cananite women, this came as a general prohibition against marrying among the other nations. In fact it is true we read the Canaanites are to be annihilated mercilessly, male and female alike. (see Deut. 7) So as we begin this parsha we read a strange command:

“When you go out to war

against your enemies

and Hashem you G-d delivers them

into you hand

so that you have captives,

and you see among the slaves a woman

of beautiful form

and you desire for her

to take her and maker her your wife;

in that case you shall bring her to your house

and shave her head

and do her nails.”

| Ki-teitzei lamilchamah

| al-oyveicha

| unetano Hashem Eloheicha

| beiadecha

| veshavita shivyo.

| Vera’ita bashivyah eshet

| yefat-toar

| vechashakta vah

| velakachta lecha le’ishah.

| Vahavetah el-toch beitecha

| vegilechah et-roshah

| ve’asetah et-tsiporneyha.

Deuteronomy 21:10-12

Now we are told by Rashi concerning this text that the reason this command was given was so that people who looked upon a beautiful women at the time of war desired her for a wife would have remedy, instead of them being left merely in error by following after their yetzer yara – their evil impulse, their base desires to desire for an illicit woman. This was a unique instance, and it should be dealt with uniquely.

Now what do we mean by a “eshet yafat toar – a woman of good form?” In the most common sense when we think of yafut – we think of beauty, being appealing to the eyes. But when it comes to the word toar, this does not necessarily mean her physical form, it means that she can be described as a certain way. Sure in the literary sense can mean her appearance, but it can also mean she’s well spoken of, she has a good name, classification, or status. But I must contest, that surely this does most likely refer to her physical appearance.

If he found an exceptional woman, and desired her we read that he is to take her to his house and he is to shave her head and fix her nails. The rabbis and the Talmud disagree on the exacting meaning of “doing ones nails” so we have both opinion presented to us, Rashi saying to let them grow, and interpreters like the Septuagint saying to cut them. Nonetheless this practice surely had something to do with purification as it is very similar to the purification of the Levites in Leviticus 14:8 and Numbers 8:7 who were required to shave their entire bodies, heads and even eyebrows. This was a symbol, of becoming new and growing anew.

She was allowed to grieve for a month, and an additional month for her father, and an additional month for her mother. After that time had passed, when she decided to stop mourning by changing into proper garments she would present herself and become the man’s wife. They would have intercourse and become a fully married couple officially.

However, if after that time he decided that he did not want her to be his wife, then she would be sent on her way as free woman. She could not be sold, she could not be kept as a servant. The reason given is because “tachat asher initah / because after you humbled her.” It’s not a pretty phrase, and its not explicitly clear what it means. To many it plainly means that he had his way with her, a true and valid interpretation. But it can also mean that he dealt harshly with her or even looked down upon her. Either way as a women being present in his house in a conservative society, they might as well have been in a relationship. In fact its very likely this is some time of betrothal period, in which they would be bound just as a married couple until it was officiated. Engagement in Israel was a very serious and contractual thing, which is something often missed in our modern age where it is merely symbolic. Her reputation would be damaged therefore he must deal with her properly and send her away as a proper lady.

Now for a moment I want us to step back to the symbols of the mitzvah, the acts of purification for the conversion process. We find that the women is made to shave her head, which our sages all agree is a symbol of humbleness. Her hair, especially for a woman is a symbol of her beauty, surely this detracts from her beauty. Why would such a thing be commanded?

The Ohr Ha Chaim – the 17th century Sephardic teacher – taught that the reason the solider was attracted to such a women was not purely because of her beauty, but because he saw beyond the klipah – the husk, the outside of the person – and saw a “beauty” of a soul imprisoned inside this women.

I am of the opinion that he was made to take away the symbol of her beauty, and see her in mourning garments in order truly see her for who she was. Could he still desire her if she didn’t look all made up, but was at her worst? He needed to know for sure it was not just for her appearance that he desired her, that he truly sought her for what could be found underneath it all; in her soul.

Rashi explains to us that this type or marriage was something to be frowned upon, as it was merely a way of taming the yetzer hara, because he was seeking out a wife that was normally not permitted of him. And it is also suggested of the women being lovely enticed by the man. Rashi then say these types of marriages lead to disaster. Because he sought the women in the end only out of desire eventually he would come to despise her. Surely he would get another wife and this one would be the jilted one, is what Rashi hints at. This would be the wife of impulse and vice. And this type of marriage caused the other ills written in this parsha such as the cases of laying down inheritance for sons from loved and unloved wives; and thus causing cases of a wayward and rebellious son. They are juxtaposed herein because they are very much related.

How can we as people today try to apply this mitzvah in a world were thankfully such war and slavery is illegal? We can do our best to look into be people and try to find those diamond in the rough, even among the most hostile of people there could be a beautiful soul looking to be liberated, a person in need of a home and a people!

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