Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · Torah

Urgings of the Heart: Why G-d Protects Converts

Though it’s not about this week’s parsha (Torah portion), I came across this piece and I couldn’t resist using it on the blog.

In Sefer Tehilim (146:9) David HaMelech teaches us that God “shomer (protects) Gerim (converts)”. The Hebrew verb ‘shomer’ means ‘to watch, guard, protect’ and it also means ‘to save’ – in the manner of “I guard my money cautiously” and “I am saving it for when it will be needed.” In this light, according to the first meaning we understand that God protects Gerim, but according to the second understanding “what is God saving them for”?!

The Ger (convert to Judaism) presents Judaism with a tremendously perplexing problem that Chazal grapple with at great lengths. This problem can be stated in one sentence. How can someone outside of Judaism – i.e. someone not born Jewish – come to embrace the Torah. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like such an overwhelming dilemma. If a person through rational, logical thinking comes to the conclusion that Torah is true and that it is the only valid value system in existence, then surely it is expected that he would accept it and that he would be accepted. When explained this way there is no obvious counter argument. If, however, in understanding that the Torah is ‘n’tah b’tocheinu’ (literally: planted within us – as found in the blessing of the Torah) we discover some of the problem. With these two words we are told that Torah is in our genes, literally; it is genetic. How then are we going to explain the existence of the Ger?

Secondly, Chazal is divided in determining when exactly did Yithro, the paradigmatic convert, join Am Yisrael. Was it before Har Sinai and the giving of the Torah, as his story’s location in the Torah would seem to suggest? Or is it after the receiving of the Torah, as much internal evidence seems to suggest? Beyond the seemingly scholarly need to clarify Torah ambiguities lies an extremely fundamental question. Did Yithro come to the Torah before Am Yisrael received it and brought it into this world, and thus made it available to the world? Or did Yithro acquire the Torah before Am Yisrael brought it into the world and therefore he would be on the level of, say, the Avot.

The Torah itself intensifies the problem because it is very clear to the Torah that the Ger, even after he/she converts, still has some aspect that causes him/her to remain distinct within Am Yisrael. The word Ger is written in the Torah forty-eight times. We interpret these numerous references, rightfully, on God’s insistence that Am Yisrael treat the Ger with exceptional care and understanding, but nevertheless the emphasis indicates separate identity. The most obvious example of the Ger having individual status and not being included or absorbed within Am Yisrael is found in Sefer D’varim Parshat N’tzavim (29:9,10) where the categories of Am Yisrael are delineated, one of which is the Ger. In a word, in a world in which the Torah has mystery, likewise in the Torah the Ger has mystery.

Chazal are not at peace with this dilemma and their interpretations and reactions pursue the extremes. From genuine praise to seemingly genuine denunciation, they wrestle and grapple with the Ger in all his complexity as an entity, in all that his existence means for Am Yisrael, and how, practically, he affects and influences Am Yisrael and is affected and influenced by Am Yisrael. What is clear, however, is that the juxtaposition of Parshat Yithro to Matan Torah – regardless of whether he came before or after – means that the Ger is integral to the Torah and its existence.

To understand the Ger the Torah demands that we read between the lines. Significantly, the Torah as much as it is a contractual document, it is even more a relationship – a love relationship between God and existence in general and between God and Am Yisrael in particular. Within the expression of that sanctity stands the Ger, much in the same way that a child (or any outsider) can physically and emotionally stand within the embrace or proximity of two who love each other very deeply. He is outside yet included; he is affected, usually profoundly so.

We learn about Yithro as Ger in Parshat Yithro. There the Torah introduces him saying that “Yithro heard what God did for Moshe and [Am] Yisrael, His people, because He took them out of Egypt.” Yithro responded by going to where Moshe and Am Yisrael were encamped. Specifically, the Torah teaches us that Yithro came to Moshe to the Midbar (wilderness, of which desert is one kind) where he [Moshe] was camped. Since Moshe (and Am Yisrael) were obviously in the Midbar, the word “Midbar” creates a redundancy which Rashi points out and clarifies. To the Midbar: “ [Didn’t] we also know that he [Moshe] was in the Midbar? Instead it [the word Midbar] is coming to teach us Yithro’s praise. [What is that?] He [Yithro] had been living in and at the epitome of honor and exclaim in the world, yet his heart urged him to go to the Midbar – an unformed desolation – to hear words of Torah.”

In this one word Rashi opens up the whole understanding of what Yithro did and what Yithro is. With the inclusion of this one single word the Torah speaks volumes. Oblivious to the argument (that has already started) about when Yithro came and at what prompting, the Torah juxtaposes two words, Yithro and Midbar. Yithro, explains Rashi, meant all the acclaim, accomplishments, fulfillment, success, honor, and glory that are achievable in this world. Nothing was beyond his grasp and nothing was denied him. With full awareness of this, the parsha begins, “Yithro heard what God did…”, to which Rashi says that his “heart urged” him. What does it mean that his “heart urged” him? It means either that Yithro had already ‘internalized’ what he heard, or that Yithro had been listening with his heart. Yithro, the embodiment of worldly striving, leaves the epicenter of civilization for a place of unformed desolation – he literally went from one pole to its opposite.

How many people heard what Yithro heard? It wasn’t like the splitting of the Reed Sea or the destruction of the Egyptian armed forces was unknown to the world at large. It wasn’t exactly a secret that well over a million plus people had departed unimpeded the crushing grip of Pharaoh’s regime. It wasn’t exactly unknown that these same million plus people were surviving, succeeding, and progressing in the Midbar – an unformed desolation. Surely Yithro heard like everyone else all the media coverage. Surely Yithro heard all of the upper echelon government military and political analysis. Surely Yithro heard all the evaluations of the leading minds and intellects of what had occurred.

Who heard?! God teaches us that Yithro heard. What did Yithro hear? Yithro heard beyond what the ear and the mind hear; Yithro heard the urging of his heart. Yithro heard that which only the heart can hear. Yithro heard love. Yithro heard the love of God moving in this world; the love of God coming to act and rest on His people. Yithro, the embodiment of civilization, left the epitome of civilization to go to the Midbar – an unformed desolation. Why did he follow his heart? Because he wanted to hear words of Torah, because he wanted to hear God’s love for His people, because he wanted to hear God’s love letter.

Perhaps we’ll never really know whether Yithro came before or after the giving of the Torah. Perhaps we’ll never really know whether it was before Har Sinai that Yithro’s heart heard God’s love that fills all creation, or if it only was after Har Sinai that Yithro’s heart heard God’s love pouring out for His people. Does it matter? Does it really matter why Yithro gave up everything? Isn’t it sufficient to know that when it came to Torah, Yithro followed his heart?!

Although Avraham is the forefather of Am Yisrael, in the Torah Avraham is not known as a Jew but as an “E’vri”. E’vri (from the root ayin beit resh) is that which passes over, that which goes beyond. Avraham went from the constraints of this world – as man knows it – to the world as God knows it. Avraham went beyond. So, too, the Ger – as Yithro epitomized – goes beyond.

So for what does God save the Gerim? He saves them to prove that it’s still possible, that it’s all very real. He saves them to show that not only is it possible but to show that all that God is waiting for is for all of us to be E’vrim – for all us to go beyond.

Shabbat Shalom,

Daniel Nakonechny,
Beit El
20 Sh’vat 5763

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