Tag Archives: Immigrants

Parshat Shemot (5775)

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

When Immigrants and Migrants are Hated for their Success

This week we begin a new book of the Torah, and our story picks up where we left off at the end of Genesis, with the family of Yaakov going down to Egypt. Why are they going down there? Surely the most emotional impacting reasons is so that the family can be re-united with Yosef. However, as touching of a reason as this is, there was a much more harsh reality at play which brought them there. There is another reason we need to considered. Namely that initially they were forced to come to Egypt in order to survive a famine in their homeland of Canaan.

The Immigrants which Built Up Boyle Heights: (clockwise) The Yiddish School , Jewish Education by the Arbeiter Ring; Mexican-American Zoot Suiters; Russian Molokian, Russian Christian pacifists; a local Japanese-American family.
The Immigrants which Built Up Boyle Heights: (clockwise) A Yiddish dayschool , Jewish education offered by the Arbeiter Ring/Workmen’s circle; Mexican-American Zoot Suiters; Russian Molokans, Russian Christian pacifists; and a local Japanese-American family.

In this week’s parsha we are quickly presented with the rise of that family, from a mere “seventy souls” of the descendants of Yaakov (Yisrael) who had come to take refuge with their brother Yosef in a foreign land, to becoming a distinct and successful people in their own merit. And how they came to be hated, not for their neediness in the end, but for their success as foreigners and their emerging greatness. This is a pattern which is all too real many times.

I don’t want to dig into the story of their journey down to Egypt, because of course we got that already in detail in the book of Genesis. Here in Exodus we are talking about the coming together and the rise of these children of Israel in a foreign land. How they rose to be a distinguished people in the land of Egypt. And the details surrounding this are few here, as in very few verses the story turns sour for the Israelites.

In the sixth verse we read that Yosef died, as well all the people of his generation. Everyone who knew Yosef personally were deceased. All those who knew of how he had saved all of Egypt from famine were now dead. Now, that was not what captivated the minds of the new generation and their new ruler when he came to power. That was not what came to mind as they considered the Israelites and their successful sojourn in Egypt.

As we see here, the main observation in this narrative – especially from the point of view of the Egyptians – is made plainly present to us right away:

“The children of Israel

were fruitful

and swarmed and increased

and became very strong,

and the land became filled with them.”

| Uveney Yisrael

| paru

| vayishretzu vayirbu

| vaya’atzmu bime’od me’od

| vatimale ha’aretz otam

Exodus 1:7

Now in this key verse from this weeks parsha, we see how the negative attitude and distrust arose. It was not just that there was a new generation, which did not have the same direct ties between the two cultures as in Yosef’s day. But more so the concern at hand was that the children of Israel had become very populous and exceedingly strong since then. And that the land had now become filled with Israelites.

These Israelites had become too successful, and there now were too many of them. And this began to concern the Egyptian people. And it also began to concern their new Pharaoh.

Before we look at the Pharaoh’s reaction to this populist outcry, let take a look at the psychology of the Egyptians rising prejudice in this narrative. I believe we have a word in the text which aptly delivers the very thoughts of this Egyptians host society. Here with the word, “vayishretzu,” meaning and they swarmed. This word, sharatz means “to swarm,” or “to infest.”

The Egyptians seem to be so alarmed by the rise of the Israelites that they easily dehumanized them in their minds. The Israelites are made out to be something as less than human, instead they are thought of as an infestation. Like bugs or vermin.

Even when our master Rashi interpret this text in order to deliver a meaning for us Jews reading on as later observers to this narrative, he cannot help but to also draw our attention as to how inhuman this word is. He instead takes it as a positive by applying midrash, suggesting in his commentary that the Israelites became numerous because they were each given six children with each birth. Something which is normally not so for us human mammals.

Rashi seems to take the understanding that we should read this word along the lines of the meaning “to be spawned,” as that’s how drastic their rise in numbers seemed. As though the Israelites were each given miraculous fertility, people having babies in a fashion comparable to the way other mammals might have litters.

From personal experience, as a minority descendant of immigrants, I’ve heard phrases used both these ways. However, not exactly as kindly as maybe our Rashi is suggesting, I’m afraid. The first way, I’ve heard in the voices of the anti-immigrant radicals; people who tend to call Latinos like myself roaches and vermin. And then there is the second way I’ve also heard it used, even by the most progressive professors of mine in college. When I heard them occasionally uncouthly remark on how supposedly immigrant Latinos are “so damn fertile” as a means to explain our rising demographics and growing influence. As you see for me, either way, I never really felt like this was a compliment. Rarely is it used as one either.

I think too few people are sensitive enough to give attention to precisely how dehumanizing these type of words can be. And we often fail to consider how these dehumanizing attitudes and statement, when left unchecked as in this story, can result in inhumane acts to come.

Now once again, let us take notice of the situation. These Israelites had become too successful, and now there were too many of them. And this began to concern the Egyptian people. And likewise it also began to concern their Pharaoh. He had to act, but he also had to have his own pretext which justified his actions against these people.

He didn’t just see these people as an infestation, but also as part of a potential invasion:

“He [Pharaoh] said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous [or greater] and stronger than we are.

“Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and when a war befall us, and they join our enemies, and fight against us, and depart from the land.’

“So they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens…”

וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ:

הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ:

וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם

Exodus 1:9-11

Here Pharaoh questions the loyalty of these resident-alien Israelites, and thus makes them out to be a threat to national security. They are a potential threat within his boarders, a threat which needs to be dwelt with.

Now I understand that many people might feel uncomfortable with this subject of the immigrants plight. In this part of the country in which I live, in a region which is heavily effected by the constant influx of migrants, this is a much painfully debated topic from both the right and the left. So talking about immigration is not exactly the best way for teachers like myself to satisfy their crowd. No matter how nuanced my presentation is. I’m likely to upset someone. Yet I feel that I must touch on this topic, because this lesson hits home for people like myself. Not just as a Latino, but even more so as a Jew! And as a Jew who caries on the heritage and ethics of my local community. And as a local who carries the burden of our local history in order to overcome it.

Let me explain before we go on to conclude our study of the Torah text, as I believe our local history will help draw this Torah lesson closer to us in a more vivid way.

Our Local History which Binds our Jewish Commitment to the Immigrant Community

If we want to talk about the hardships of the immigrants, our accounts really needs to mention the deplorable way that Asian immigrants have been treated in our society since the beginning, especially here in California. First there was the lynching of Chinese in Los Angeles in 1871. Then in 1882 the “Chinese Exclusion Act” was ratified, which had tremendous consequences for the Chinese immigrants in this state. Chinese immigrants were stripped of their rights and dehumanized by society. And also barred from immigration; be they skill, unskilled, or employed in mining (the most major break-back job of the day). They were painted as too needy, as thus the Chinese were unwelcome and treated as a threat. Unlike any other people, they were mistreated and even surcharged in death as a foreign burden, when they were begrudgingly buried here outside the limits of Evergreen Cemetery here in Boyle Heights.

The suffering often crudely summed up as the plight of the Chinese rail-workers – those strong people who also helped unite this continent – how they were treated is considered a national shame. It’s something we need to all remember and consider. Even today, in an age when in contrast people often show contempt and sometimes even commit hate crimes against Chinese immigrants simply because of their present-day successes and educational prowess. (see “3 Los Angeles teens ordered to stand trial in death of USC exchange student.” “Killing of Chinese Student in LA a Wake-up Call”)

However, this was not the first occurrence of anti-immigrant prejudice to overtake California. Our first occurrence of legislation targeting resented immigrant minorities was actually enacted in 1855, just five years after the state was admitted into the Union. William W. Stow, Speaker of the State Assembly of California (and creator of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco), enacted unconstitutional Christian Sabbath laws. And in a slanderous manner accused Jews of depriving Christian business owners of customers and profits. Stow even accused Jews of being foreigners who did not contribute to the state!

This accusation that Jews were strangers getting successful at the expense of Christians was challenge by none other than Samuel K. Labatt, the American Sephardic Jew, and founder of the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles (today known and operating as Jewish Family Service). Samuel and his lawyer brother Henry J. Labatt saw to the writing and publication of effective denunciations of Stow, which were also republished here by the Los Angeles Star in April 7th, 1855. Making Samuel K. Labatt the first anti-defamation activist of Los Angeles.

Both for the Jews and the Chinese, attempts to legally marginalize them did often succeed. Surfacing over and over again in a constant back and forth of legal discrimination waged out in the courts, and sparked by whatever social anxiety of the time. Jews became very aware of our need to mobilize and denounce the persecution of immigrants each time it arose.

When the next flow of the poorer Eastern European Jews came and settled in the area of Boyle Height in the early 20th century, the connection between our local Jewish community and our other minority immigrants became forged together. And not just by being neighbors, but by identifying with each others suffering. This suffering would then intensify in the wake of World War II, as many immigrants would experience the second element of the discrimination we’ve been talking about. As many of our immigrant minorities were also wrongly accused of being disloyal.

This is a copy of the
This is a copy of the “The Siren,” published by Hollenbeck Middle School (Jr Rough Riders) students in 1941.

First in December 1941, when the United States was first thrown into World War II. The Jewish community was outspoken about their concern for their Japanese neighbors, even before their internment. Everyone from small to great.

As noted by a Jewish girl named Marilyn Greene, a student at Hollenbeck Junior High School at the time: “We have a special concern for our loyal American citizens of Japanese descent who are as truly American as any of us. They have our especial (sic) sympathy in the hard days and difficult situation that may lie before them.” (“The Siren,” student newspaper dated December 1941; see image to the right)

Their apprehension was justified, as shortly after the Japanese-American families were interned in camps. And their property and entire wealth was generally liquidated. In the wake of this, our local Jewish publishers were alone in decrying this injustice in the mass media. Al Waxman’s “East Side Journal” and the “L.A. Reporter” were the only newspapers in the nation to editorialize and decry the Japanese interment at the time. A brave and bold position in decrying injustice, one Waxman would also hold in the wake of the Zoot Suit Riots as well.

Which brings us to a most notorious event in local history, the Zoot Suit Riots. Which was not any one event, but a series of riots which gripped Los Angeles in 1943. A shocking spectacle of violence inspired by populist rhetoric. Riots inflicted upon the community by local Marines against the ethnic Zoot Suiter youth, one which most often resulted in stripping them naked and beating them. Defrocking them of their glorious outfits for which they were notorious. All this happening during the height of wartime, and with the aid of the local authorities and stoked by the conservative media which controlled Los Angeles at the time.

Though this wave of violence was inflicted on all minorities of this style of street-culture in those days, the brunt of the abuse was mostly directed at Mexicans. Partially in reaction to the US government’s much debated “Bracero Program.” (named for the Spanish term bracero, meaning “manual laborer” [lit. “one who works using his arms”]) which allowed immigration for manual laborers in the US’s existential time of need. A program aimed at helping provide workers to fill jobs left vacant as the local men were off to war. (see “Fighting over the American Standard of Living, 1943-1945: Zoot Suit Riots, Wildcar Strikes, and the Supremacy of the Soldier.”)

Servicemen and civilians of the day attacked these youth citing a supposed lack of support in uniform by Mexicans during WWII. In reality over 350,000 Mexican-Americans were serving in US uniform as the war raged on two fronts.
Servicemen and civilians attacked these youth, citing excess in dress style and a supposed lack of support in uniform by Mexicans during WWII. In reality over 350,000 Mexican-Americans were serving in US uniform as the war raged on two fronts.

Servicemen of the day were regularly incensed by the appearance of the lack of support in uniform by these Mexicans during WWII, all the while accusing Mexicans of making out well financially in industrial jobs they were called up to fill as the war raged. Offended at the appearance of excess which Mexicans seemed to flaunt in the lean times of war, the Zoot Suit became their hated symbol of excess and opportunism. For this reason they were stripped and brutally beaten. All with the tactic approval of the police and sheriffs.

The Zoot Suit Riots were an orgy of violence directed against those perceived of as draft-dodging and disloyal, which spilled into all the minority communities of Los Angeles.

This series of brutal attacks were so severe it likewise traumatized the Jewish community of the area, as many regarded the unrest and targeting of Mexicans as reminiscent of the pogroms inflicted against themselves in Eastern Europe. Where Jews were also often accused of succeeding at the expense of their host countries. Where they were also often hated for their supposed lack of participation in the wars of their Czar and the nobles. Where they were also attacked for maintaining their own identity and standing apart.

For this reason the Jewish community felt a great affinity with the cause of Mexican-Americans and threw their strong political support behind this other immigrant rich community. The first vestiges of a working Latino civil rights movement would emerge from the aftermath of the riots. Even before most of my Latino ancestors had a concept of what civil rights activism looked like, progressive Jews supported our cause here. Understanding that Latinos of the area needed a voice and sense of self-determination in this shared community of ours.

Zoot Suit Riots: Mexicans Stripped and Beaten
Zoot Suit Riots: Mexicans Stripped and Beaten

The political unions made with progressive Jews at that time would also later help propel Edward R. Roybal to city council as the first Mexican-American council member of the City of Los Angeles in 1949, representing this very district. With the predominate Jewish community strongly endorsing Roybal, over and against a popular nationalist Jewish American candidate of the time. The election of Roybal kicked off a season of progressive advances in housing, education and healthcare access for the overlooked minority communities. Causes he carried with him to the US Congress.

I could go on and on, brining us to the present with examples the Jewish commitment to our minorities and immigrant communities. However, I present just a mere selection of our foundational history. As I want us to understand our basic roots here. And from where the bonds of our historical loyalties are derived. This is all to remind us, we have a historical and religious obligation as Jews to support and hold the cause of the immigrant minorities in this region, and specifically in this neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

This scenario which the Torah lays out to us here in this parsha, it is mirrored in real life. This resentment of an immigrant people who first came poor and then were hated for their successes in the end. People who were often called disloyal strangers. It is very accessible to us if we just think about the history around us.

In Conclusion: “So did they multiply and so did they gain strength.”

As we see from real life, persecution often fortifies people instead of breaking them. Making them more determined, and forcing them to further develop their strengths. And so it was for the migrant Israelites as well. As we read in the next verse:

“But as much as they [the Egyptians] would afflict them [the Israelites], so did they multiply and so did they grow, and they were disgusted because of the children of Israel.”

וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ וַיָּקֻצוּ מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

Exodus 1:12

The Torah text tells us that despite all the cruelties and afflictions laid upon them by the Egyptians, the Israelites continued to increase both in number and in strength. These are points which are important for us to understand. But as the translations often greatly vary here, lets us take a look at this for ourselves. What is it exactly saying here?

What happened for the children of Israel? They were able to yirbah they were able to not just multiply, or increase. They were able to expand themselves.

What else happened for the children of Israel? They were able to yifrotz – they were able to grow, as most translations of the bible read. But I believe this translation is weak and insufficient. The word yifrotz means to break-out, to burst, to erupt, and to breach.

Our scriptures paint a picture of people who are blessed and whose lives are filled with success. They had arrived as a small and helpless people, and in a relatively short period of time they became great there. So great that they increased in population and in success, bursting out from their constraints in both these respects. Outgrowing their disadvantage in seemingly miraculous ways.

And what was the Egyptian reaction to this? We are told of the Egyptians, “vayakutzu mif’nei bnei yisrael / and they were disgusted in the faces of Israel.” What is this disgust? Is it merely just dehumanizing loathing? Or is it something more?

There is two more ways we can look at this text, depending on how we personally understand our master Rashi’s interpretation. We are presented with both of these ideas in the commentary for this line:

And they were disgusted: They were disgusted with their lives. (Others explain: And the Egyptians were disgusted with themselves, and it is easy to understand why.) Our Rabbis, however, interpreted it to mean that they [the Israelites] were like thorns (כקוצים) in their eyes. [from Sotah 11a]”

ויקצו: קצו בחייהם. ורבותינו דרשו כקוצים היו בעיניהם:

Rashi to Exodus 1:12

We have actually talked about this before. When dealing with turns of phrase similar to this. One reference found in a statement made by Isaac, and another found in the story of Moab and Balaam. In both those cases we saw that this phrase meant to be “disgusted” with life. To be “weary” of one’s own existence, but on account of others! (see Parshat Balak 2011)

So we can look at this two ways. The first being, that these Egyptians couldn’t feel contentment in life because of these Israelites whom they loathed. Their very existence and presence in their land caused them to be disgusted with life. As long as Israel remained and was prospering, they could not feel anything but disdain for life. These immigrants were ruining their lives!

And then there is the second way to look at this. That the Egyptians were disgusted with themselves. That the Egyptians grew disgusted with the results of their own way of life. They grew disgusted with their own inability to succeed and overcome their own challenges. And furthermore they even grew disgusted with the way that they mistreated these Israelites, and looking at these people constantly reminded them of that. Everything about their conduct made them disgusted with themselves as they stood before these noble Israelites. They became disgusted of their own conduct when forced to stand, “mif’nei bnei Yisaael / in the face of Israel.” They could no longer stand looking at these people eye to eye.

For this reason the Egyptians felt that they had to be “shrewd” with these Israelites. Inflicting taxation, slavery, heavy labor, etc. All of this we read as our parsha continues. But still we need to ask ourselves. Why would they go to this extreme, to all but annihilate this people? How could they then further descent into the slaughter of the Israelite babies?

An understanding of this is drawn out of the text here by our sages here, as Rashi finally notes. It’s because these Israelites became like thorns in the eyes of the Egyptians. Meaning everywhere they looked all they could see was these Israelites, and it was more than an irritation to them. It was even a pain – like kotzim, thorns in their eyes – for the Egyptians to see this people increase and succeed. So they took matters into their own hands.

And this is a hardship which Israel has always faced. In conclusion, I would like us all to consider this deep observation made by Rabbi Robert Kaplan concerning this phenomenon of hatred toward Israel by their detractors, hatred for their success and growth:

“When people look honestly at the accomplishments of the Jewish people and all of the advancements to civilization they have provided over the millennia of human existence, it is an astounding record. The achievements made by the Children of Israel, in every historical time period be it peaceful but mostly turbulent, is unexplainable in terms of natural causality. This fact registers unconsciously in the minds of our enemies particularly when they boast of numerical superiority and cultural enlightenment. There are two ways to deal with these phenomena. The enemy can look inward and reexamine its culture, its way of living and philosophy of life. If they did, they would realize the great advantage such recognition would bring to their existence. They would be able to make the necessary changes to improve their lives. However, the easier path is to blame the other, successful society for making you look bad. When this course is chosen, the only way to relieve the disappointment at failure of your own inability to succeed is to turn the frustration outward onto the ones who make you look and feel bad by their success. If possible, destroying them from existence is the best solution. Then there will be no more reminders of your internal disgust at your own inability to succeed.”

Rabbi Robert G. Kaplan of

CURE: Community Understanding for Racial and Ethnic Equality

Something to Consider: Are you anxious or distressed by immigrants and foreigners? Do you hold resentment for certain cultures for their increasing prominence? Maybe instead of being intimidated and unwelcoming, it would be a benefit for us to learn from other peoples unique ways and see how to adapt their strengths to our society as well. To appreciate these people as a contributing benefit to our society, and not as a threat.

Related articles:

Parshat Kedoshim (5774)

Leviticus 19 – 20

Because “I Meant Well” Doesn’t Cut It

As we come into this week’s parsha we cannot avoid the fact that this week’s theme is holiness, Kedoshim means to be holy, to be sacred. Our parsha is named after the key word that leads this parsha, and the leading word in the phrase: “Kedoshim tiheyu ki kadosh ani Hashem eloheichem / You shall be holy, for I, Hashem, am holy.” (Levitcus 19:2)

We aught to really consider the advice that we give people, realizing that people are often trusting us to blindly to lead them. If we misadvise someone, its just like setting up a stumbling block which causes them to fall

“We aught to really consider the advice that we give people, realizing that people are often blindly trusting us to lead them. If we mis-advise someone, it’s just like setting up a stumbling block which causes them to fall”

The Torah begins to detail what it means to be holy. Respecting your parents, and observing Shabbat. (v. 3) Not making worthless idols, but instead showing respect for the sacred service of Hashem. (v. 4) This all keeps in mind with lofty sacredness we normally associate with religion and tradition. (v. 5-8)

But then our Torah immediately begins to challenge us with addition demands which are not so heavenly, but instead focused on the way we treat other people. The Torah suggest that part of holiness is displayed by how care for our fellow man. At this time we are also commanded to leave behind some of the remaining crops after the harvest, and to leave the corners of the field so that they can be collected by the poor, and the stranger – the ger the resident alien (or the convert). (v. 10-11)

And then the Torah makes even more demands, ones of an ethical nature. That we do not steal, that we do not falsely deny people their property or deny our true intentions. That we not lie to our fellow. (v. 11) Lest we believe these demands are merely good civil suggestions, we see that our Torah presses the issue of honesty as being a matter of spiritual significance.

We cannot be dishonest with our fellow and expect that it to not eventually have mirroring consequences for how we respect the creator of man – Hashem our G-d. We are told that we should not be false because it can inevitably lead to one falsely swearing or testifying by G-d’s Name, and thereby, “chilul Hashem eloheichem / profane the Name of your G-d.” (v. 12)

This part of the Torah is elementary for every Jew. We understand that we are to deal fairly and honestly in all our dealing because our actions can lead to the desecration of G-d’s Name. It’s more than just taking a false oath and testifying dishonestly after swearing by G-d. We also understand that as Jews, as religious Jews, our actions have consequences. Acting poorly reflects badly upon our faith and diminishes people’s respect for our G-d. We drag G-d’s Name down into the muck with us when we act unethically.

Simply put, the command to be holy is so important because the world cannot comprehend our G-d as holy if the people who claim to represent Him act appallingly. This call of holiness is not just a demand for us to rise to holiness, but also a stern warning not to diminish the holiness of our righteous G-d through our actions.

So what are we next warned again? We are further commanded not oppress our fellow. To not rob them. And to not withhold the wages of the workers. (v. 13) The Torah talks about paying a laborer in the manner of a day laborer, at the end of the day and not stiffing them or holding out.

For just a moment I would like us to consider the plight of the many immigrants to this country who are most often oppressed, robed of all they have on their road to freedom, and then upon arrival most often exploited in employment because of their illegal status. Day laborers in this country are openly exploited in some of the most appalling ways.

The strangers in our midst – the ger, the immigrant and the convert – this is most often their reality. Being unfamiliar with our ways and at the mercy of the suggestions of others they are taken advantage of by not just the locals, but most often by other immigrants who insincerely swear they are merely looking out for this person’s best interests. But even if its obvious that is not true, the stranger isn’t in a position to defend themselves and therefore just learn to deal with it. As people siphen these laborers dough and resources. I see things like this near everyday in the barrio, with inappropriate demands and unfair pay. As I see it, the Torah’s commands are no less relevant to us today.

Before we move on, I would hope that we all make a commitment to deal fairly with all workers, both with our own citizens and the strangers in our midst. Even day laborers are entitled to a fair and timely wage according to our Torah!

However, today we are going to focus on the final verse of our first aliyah, verse 14. This next commandment related to holiness is the least understood of these statements. It reads:

“Do not not curse a deaf person.

Do not place a stumbling block

before a blind person.

You shall fear your G-d – I am Hashem.

| Lo-tekalel cheresh

| velifnei iver lo

| titen michshol

| veyareta me’Eloheicha ani Hashem

Leviticus 19:14

The placement of these commands should make sense to us. We have talked about the poor, the stranger, the laborer, and now it deals with the disabled. Specifically the deaf and the blind. That one should not curse them, nor be tricksters with them. One might ask themselves who would be cruel to a person and take advantage of them based on their condition? You would be surprised the callousness some people have. It should be severely obvious to us, we are commanded do not to mistreat the disabled.

Because it is also unthinkable to our rabbis that people should be so overtly cruel, the rabbis have tried to focus more deeply upon this message to make us realize that this commandment can also apply to each of us in more subtle ways.

Our sages are of the opinion that it is unthinkable for us to curse any living person, let alone a deaf person. That when the Torah makes this command it is merely to double reinforce this for their benefit! So our rabbis pretty much walk away from this saying not to curse anyone, but especially not the deaf. Because they can’t hear you, it’s cruel and unfair.

I agree with the sages on this. Our rabbis tend to see all of this verse in a more symbolic manner. They further draw ethical lessons from these verses for the benefit of all people. This has also been my understanding as I read these verses.

For example, the first phrase of our statement “do not curse a deaf person” also has figuratively meant to me to not get angry with people when they cannot hear what you are saying. When they just don’t have the ears to hear, they just aren’t capable of listening or giving heed to better advice.

Rashi’s advice also seems to follow a similar line of logic as we continue with the commentary for this verse, regarding the blind. The Rashi for the blind reads:

You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person: Before a person who is ‘blind’ regarding a matter, you shall not give advice that is improper for him. [For instance,] do not say to someone, ‘Sell your field and buy a donkey [with the proceeds],’ while [in truth] you plan to cheat him [by advising him to sell his field for a very low price for your own purpose,] since you yourself will take the field from him [for this low price].”

ולפני עור לא תתן מכשל: לפני הסומא בדבר לא תתן עצה שאינה הוגנת לו, אל תאמר מכור שדך וקח לך חמור, ואתה עוקף עליו ונוטלה הימנו:

Rashi, Levitcus 19:14

Rashi likens a person who is knowledgeable and clueless in a matter to one who is blind, for a person is indeed “blind” in that matter. When one can’t see for themselves what is true and what isn’t. They can’t see the path or dangers ahead, so they are dependent upon us to help them navigate that path. Since our trusted advice leads the way, it’s no less cruel to trip people up with advice than it is to physically stick out your leg and cause them to stumble. Sometimes our bad advice, that can be a stumbling block to others.

Rashi even outright tells that based on this command we are forbidden from giving advice that is improper for a person. We are commanded to keep in mind the best interest of the person, and not our own interests. Rashi tells us we are forbidden from giving advice which benefits us, instead of the person we are advising. That we benefit, as they stumble.

Furthermore, our rabbinic tradition seems to suggest to us that we should not be loose with handing out advice for which we have a financial interest in. Rashi makes this example, its like giving bad real estate advice to the needy, when your intention is to make a steal by acquiring their property below market value. Our rabbis thereby would suggest it is inappropriate for us to go around giving advice for which we have personal and special interests in, for which we ourselves profit.

Why not? Simply because it’s nearly impossible to be objective in one of those situations. That should be obvious.

Personally, I don’t necessarily like giving out personal advice to people. I always wait until asked, and I am always pensive about my responses. Making sure to keep in mind the situation and needs of the person I’m talking to. And always trying to leave my own interest out of it. But more often than not, I’m usually simply listening to people and helping them figure how to pick and approach the best of the choices present in their lives.

Honestly, I prefer to give my personal advice to people privately. As the internet is rife with people who loosely hand out advice on things. People who give you hokey advice, then want to “click here” to buy into it.

Personally I strive not to be one of them. I hope to share the personal knowledge I have, so that people can make better choices for themselves. But I believe the Torah herein tells us to be careful regarding our intentions when we suggest things to others.

Now the Internet personalities out there most certainly get upset when you pose it that way. Because it is very easy for one to snap back, “But you don’t know my intentions!” Precisely one cannot truly judge another person’s intentions, that’s another reason yet why we should restrain ourselves:

And you shall fear your G-d: [Why is this mentioned here?] Because this matter [of misadvising someone] is not discernible by people, whether this person had good or evil intentions, and he can avoid [being recriminated by his victim afterwards] by saying, ‘I meant well!’ Therefore, concerning this, it says, ‘and you shall fear your G-d,” Who knows your thoughts!’ Likewise, concerning anything known to the one who does it, but to which no one else is privy, Scripture says, ‘and you shall fear your G-d.’” – [Torath Kohanim 19:34]

ויראת מאלהיך: לפי שהדבר הזה אינו מסור לבריות לידע אם דעתו של זה לטובה או לרעה, ויכול להשמט ולומר לטובה נתכוונתי, לפיכך נאמר בו ויראת מאלהיך המכיר מחשבותיך. וכן כל דבר המסור ללבו של אדם העושהו ואין שאר הבריות מכירות בו, נאמר בו ויראת מאלהיך:

Rashi, Levitcus 19:14

One of the reasons we need to keep from doing anything that looks inappropriate in our dealings with others is because they have no way at all of knowing our intentions. For in such a case, when things go sour, what is else can one say? Other than, “I meant well!” and, “I had the best intentions!” But the truth is that is insufficient of a statement. In fact Rashi and our rabbis would suggest that is merely a knee-jerk way of avoiding recrimination.

Rashi instead speaks to a person who uses such an excuse through this last clause, saying that you should fear G-d. Because He really does know whats going on inside your head, and in your heart. Therefore fear G-d – or more appropriate, show respect for G-d – and know that He is privy to your private thoughts. One should consider if their intentions are really so pure, or if they are instead colored by personal bias or financial interest. And be aware that even when we don’t consciously recognize it, G-d does know and will judge us accordingly. G-d seeing all the factors, even the ones we choose to leave out and ignore.

When we do things that are inappropriate and non-transparent we not only jeopardize our own sacredness, but we also profane the Name of G-d. When we engage in things that may appear inappropriate we show a shocking lack of respect for G-d, not just for man.

Lesson of the Week: We ought to really consider the advice that we give people, realizing that people are often blindly trusting us to lead them. If we misadvise someone, it’s just like setting up a stumbling block which causes them to fall.

Related articles:

Parshat Vayishlach (2013)

Genesis 32:4-36:43

The Immigrant Experience: The Challenges of Hardship and Success

Immigrant Running Highway SignIn this weeks parsha we have our rabbis describe the sojourn of Yaakov through the eyes of an immigrant, through the experience of a stranger. This because there are elements of Yaakov’s life that hint to us that he understood the hardships of being a foreigner, and the conflicts of being a successful immigrant. Today we are going to look at how this plays out for Yaakov the migrant, and his descendants.

Let us start at the top of our parsha. In the first verse we see that Yaakov sends messengers ahead of him, to his brother Eisav in Seir, in Edom where he dwells. Eisav has amassed a small army and following of his own. As Yaakov returns home he fear that Eisav will hear of his approach and come up to get even with him.

Then our second verse reads:

“And he commanded them

saying: ‘So shall you say to my lord,

to Esau.

“Thus says your servant Yaakov;

with Laban I have resided,

and stayed until now.”’”

| Vayetzav otam

| lemor koh tomrun ladonee

| le-Eisav

| koh amar avdecha Yaakov

| im-Lavan garti

| va’echar ad-atah

Gensis 32:5

As Yaakov considers his return back to Canaan and his father’s home in Hevron he realizes that he better show respect to Eisav. Sure he is groveling, but he is also doing the right thing of acknowledging Eisav as a man of authority. He gives full honor to Eisav when he refers to him as adonee – my lord, my master. Yaakov refers to himself as being an eved – a slave, a servant to Eisav. He fully throws himself at Eisav’s mercy.

Aside from appealing to Eisav with deference and respect, he also begins to offer an explanation for himself. He needs to provide Eisav a reason to show mercy to him. Before Yaakov offers his possessions as a bribe, he makes a statement about where he acquired them and where he as been since his disappearance. He says, “garti / I have resided” with Laban.

Now we know the hardships that Yaakov endured in his residency with Laban. How he worked hard for his uncle Laban for seven years to earn his right to marry Rachel, but instead he was given Leah. How he then worked another seven to eventually also earn Rachel’s hand in marriage. His pay rate was toyed around with in order to benefit his cruel employer, Laban who despised his astounding success in business. Having no hope or future there due to persecution, he eventually has to the return to the home and heritage he abandoned.

Our master Rashi comments on this verse, and also focuses his attention on the word garti (resided) as being a key word to understanding this text and the weight of the statement being made here.

The Rashi to our text reads:

I have sojourned: Heb. גַּרְתִּי. I did not become an officer or a dignitary, but a stranger (גֵּר). It is not worthwhile for you to hate me on account of your father’s blessing, [with] which he blessed me (27:29):“You shall be a master over your brothers,” for it was not fulfilled in me (Tanchuma Buber Vayishlach 5). Another explanation: גַּרְתִּי has the numerical value of 613. That is to say: I lived with the wicked Laban, but I kept the 613 commandments, and I did not learn from his evil deeds.”

גרתי: לא נעשיתי שר וחשוב אלא גר, אינך כדאי לשנוא אותי על ברכות אביך שברכני (לעיל כז כט) הוה גביר לאחיך, שהרי לא נתקיימה בי. דבר אחר גרתי בגימטריא תריג, כלומר עם לבן הרשע גרתי ותריג מצות שמרתי ולא למדתי ממעשיו הרעים:

Rashi to Genesis 23:5

As we begin to look at Rashi’s interpretation we must first understand that he is going out of his way to make a bold statement. One can say that he is almost teasing an interpretation out of this. I say this because there is little need to interpret the word gararti; it simply means to sojourn, to reside, to live with them. There is no mystery surrounding this turn of phrase.

Nonetheless Rashi decides to simmer on this point for a while, he does this by invoking homily by word association. Rashi takes the word from its context, a verb whose root is gar (גָּר), and instead insists that we look at this phrase as though it is rooted in the closely related word ger (גֵּר). He tells us to look past its meaning as a verb and consider its emphasis delivered in the tone of a noun. I’ll explain what this means.

The word ger is a charged phrase in our Jewish lexicon, so we need to put it in proper context. In the rabbinic use of the word ger, we hold this word to mean convert or stranger. But but here it is displayed in its purest form, here ger means resident alien. In a purely civil use of the word, this means to dwell (gar) among another people as non-citizen alien – a ger.

Rashi doesn’t want us to just consider that Yaakov lived in a foreign place, but he wants us even more still to identify with him as a foreigner. He wants us to empathize with, and also soberly consider the realities of being a foreigner.

Here as we have Yaakov returning to Canaan with all his possessions and servants, he has to explain how he accumulated such wealth. It is incumbent upon him to explain that for the first time he has acquired great things through honest dealings and work. Furthermore, to soften the heart of Eisav who he has previously ripped-of, he seems to be making an appeal that Eisav not seek to get even through plundering him. In fact he had already been riped-off by Laban all along.

Here Rashi makes the most interesting point. He says when Yaakov went abroad he did stay with his uncle Laban. But he wasn’t received like a prince or some sort of dignitary. He was a stranger. Though he had native relatives in the land of Charan where he resided, he was still a stranger. He was a resident and not a citizen. He was a resident alien.

Now very few times do we consider what the status differences between a citizen and a resident are. In the United States this seems very odd, because the law of the land grants most civil rights to all people on our soil. And there are very few restrictions set upon foreigners, in comparison to other countries. That is not to say we don’t have injustices towards foreigners, but inequality for migrants is most heinous in the developing world. Their plight there is often callously ignored.

This lesson brings up some memories of my youth, when I used to go abroad with my family. I lived for some time in Northern Mexico, joining my retired grandparents to help them settle into their retirement. We had always considered ourselves Mexican-Americans, even though we were all born citizens of the USA. Even if we were quite a few generations removed, the place seemed to hold some sort of ethnic identity for us. We saw it as our “old country.” But quickly I began to see in the real context of civil society that sentiment and ethnicity meant nothing.

Not only for me, but for many other people. And for the Central and South American migrants, I witness unparalleled brutality show to them by both authorities and citizens alike. Most often these travelers heading north were swindled of everything they had, and in many case even kidnapped into forced labor. In many more cases, they are just shot dead and left in mass graves that get little real attention. Being there I saw that there was little reason for migrant families to settle in Mexico, because basic civil services like public education and health care are denied to non-citizens.

And applying for residency did not gain one much rights even then. The applications for residency stating that for employment one must be sponsored by an employer, however the job must not be one that can be filled by a Mexican citizen. Immigration imposes impossible financial and legal restrictions. Neither are non-citizens able to own land. I even watched as thousands of American senior citizens who unwittingly invested and lived in retirement beach homes in Mexico got tossed to the streets by federal police.

This may seem outrageous, and it is, but this is the common experience of many immigrants. And Yaakov’s experience was no less complicated and perilous. He didn’t venture to Charan with a certain sense of entitlement, nor gain anything through their charity. Quite to the contrary. Even his kinship to Laban meant nothing really, if anything he was victimized by Laban because Yaakov had no rights in that land to protect him. He came as a foreigner and was treated as a common foreigner in the worldly sense. In the way that aliens are treated in the less enlightened world, very poorly.

So in this statement Rashi has Yaakov saying to Eisav, you have no reason to hate me. Don’t be angry with me on account of my success, because it’s not what it seems. In fact it’s not worth being angry over, because instead of living up to the blessing as master over ones brothers I went into a foreign land and dwelt as a menial servant with no rights.

So that brings up the question, so what of G-d’s promise? Did G-d not keep His word?

It’s not that G-d’s promise was not kept, but it was not fulfilled in Yaakov’s own person. It was something that was realized by his children, by his sons that would form the twelves tribes of Israel.

If you think about it, this is most often true for immigrants. Though immigrants in very permissive countries like the United States often find success, the true benefit of their gain is not usually actualized by them but their children instead.

For immigrant families this is one of the most driving concerns, about raising their children for a better future. So that their children can achieve the dreams that they could not. It should be the drive of the immigrant parent to work hard in order to secure a better future for their children. To allow their children to leap into the world with security and resources that they did not have in their own journey. To have sons and daughters that will walk boldly into society without the many layers of insecurities they had.

However, the fullness of the immigrant’s dream is not fully realized by the parents who are doing the hard work of building a foundation and sinking roots for the family. It is the children who really experience what its like for it all to come to fruition. It is actualized by children born into a native environment of success and abundance.

That is not to say that success does not come with some difficulties for the immigrant and their families as well. When there is a lot of acceptance. And this is one of those topics that we can explored by utilizing the alternative interpretation of Rashi.

Rashi makes a second point, saying that one can also interpret this text kabbalistically. He asks us to look at the mystical meaning, in order to further illuminate the text. He employs the use of gematria and tells us the word garti (resided) has the numeric value of 613 – the number of Torah commandments we recognize in the scriptures. He uses the mystical this time to make us reconsider this text.

Our master Rashi teaches us that we should understand this to hint at the idea that when Yaakov went and dwelt as a foreigner he still kept all of his tradition and faith. He didn’t forget his Torah values and goals. Nor did he learn from their evil ways.

And this is one of the things that most often concerns immigrants of any origin or experience when they come to free countries in the West. That they might lose part of their identity. And that their children will be too free to make decisions different from theirs, and embrace ways that are contrary to their own. That future children will not appreciate or recognize the importance of their culture and heritage. They they might even reject one’s inherited culture all together in pursuit of the vices of the common culture.

And this is most often the concern for religious Jews, but it is even more so for people who are recent immigrants. We often see this displayed in the communal politics of the Jewish immigrants who have recently come from places such as Iran and Morocco for instance. Overwhelmed by cultural and technological changes the parents often become culturally nostalgic and more ethnic acting than in “the old world.” And its not their “exoticness” that really makes us curious. We can’t help but curiously take notice as their integration plays out, because the experience of learning to coexist without assimilation is something that is more challenging than ever. Their experience echoes our own immigrant heritage, so we voyeuristically look on deeply wanting to know if this immigrant dream is still attainable in this day and age.

Rashi points us to Yaakov and says here is a person who dealt with seriously hardship. He was a true foreigner, an immigrant, a resident-alien. He had the worst type of migration experience, but he made a success out of it. And this type of success is not just mere survival and material accomplishment. The true measure of a successful migration is when one is able to gain prosperity without sacrificing their sense of identity. Yaakov stands out as an example that even in the most foreign and harsh conditions, we can still hold on to who we are at our core.

Something to Consider: Often times people use immigrants for work on the job and in our homes. Often times their great need leads to them accepting illegal work, for unfair conditions and pay. Out of fear they can not object or tell the authorities of their suffering. How do you think one should react when they witnesses predatory employment of foreign workers?

Also, there are immigrants all over the world that unjustly mistreated. This year I would like us to all to try to explore the plight of not only Jewish immigrants, but also of underrepresented people in the world. Ones that most people don’t often consider. Migrants such as the Romani (gypsies), and exiles such as the Tibetans.

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?

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.

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