“Our Brother, Our Sister–the Proselyte”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Naso, we learn of an interesting law concerning a person who takes possession of money that does not belong to him. This unlawful act may take the form of not returning a loan, withholding overdue wages, or simply stealing money from a fellow Jew. The sinner in this case has also compounded the crime by swearing falsely that he owes or took nothing.

In Numbers 5:5-8, the Torah informs us how a penitent thief or embezzler may achieve forgiveness. Numbers 5:7 reads, “V’hit’vah’doo et cha’tah’tam ah’sher ah’soo, v’hay’shiv et ah’shah’mo b’ro’sho, vah’chah’mee’she’tow yo’sef ah’lav, v’nah’tahn la’ah’sher ah’shahm lo.” The [sinner] shall confess his sin, make restitution of the principle amount, add 1/5 to the value, and return it to the owner.

This law is an amplification of a law that already appears in Leviticus 5:20-26, and it is repeated here in parashat Naso because of two new features: 1) If the thief voluntarily confesses, he is required to bring an offering, and make an additional 20% payment to the victim and 2) we learn from the verse in Numbers 5:8 which states: “V’im ayn lah’ish go’ayl l’hah’shiv ha’ah’shahm ay’lov, ha’ah’shahm ha’moo’shav la’Hashem la’Cohen,” that if the victim has no relatives to whom the debt can be returned, the returned funds belong to G-d and are given to the Cohen.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, the foremost commentator on the Bible) immediately notes, “V’chee yaysh l’chah ah’dam b’Yisrael sheh’ain lo go’ah’lim?” Is there a person in Israel who has no redeemers, either a son or a daughter, or some related kin from his father’s family, tracing the relationship back to our forefather, Jacob?! Rather, concludes Rashi, this must refer to a convert who has passed on and has left no heirs. The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah (8:1, 2, 3) notes that this law underscores the special effort the Torah makes to protect proselytes, for they are in G-d’s eyes as beloved and as important as those born Jewish.

The mitzvah of loving and caring for the ger, the convert, is mentioned more often than any other mitzvah in the Torah–in fact, it is repeated 36 times! It is said that a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. Therefore, the commandment to take care of the proselyte is preeminent in Jewish tradition.

Indeed, the Jewish people have greatly benefitted from, and been profoundly enriched by, those who have converted to Judaism. According to tradition, Shmaya and Avtalyon, the teachers and mentors of Hillel and Shamai, were converts (Gittin 57b). Unkelos, the foremost translator of the Bible was a convert as well. The grandchildren of Sisra, Senacherib, Haman and the Emperor Nero, were all converts to Judaism.

There is, however, an ambivalence reflected in Jewish tradition that reveal a bias against converts. So, for instance, the rabbis consider converts responsible for the sins of the Golden Calf and the trespassers at the Graves of Lust. They maintain that it was the Ah’saf’suf--(Numbers 11:4) the mixed multitudes–the Egyptians who embraced G-d and left Egypt together with the Jews during the Exodus, who led the people astray. That is why the rabbis in Talmud Kedushim 70b say, “Ka’asheh gay’rim l’Yisrael k’sa’pah’chaht”–converts are as troublesome to the Jewish people as a skin disease. There are those who say that the rabbis harbor antipathy towards converts because they fear that the converts may lapse and return to their original faith and behavior. There are, however, many who see this statement in a favorable light. Converts are troublesome to the Jewish people because they make those born Jewish look bad, in comparison to the converts’ usual enthusiastic devotion and commitment!

Because of Judaism’s high regard for converts, there is even a special blessing for them included in the daily Amidah. The blessing begins with the words, “Al ha’tzadikim, v’al ha’chasidim, v’al zik’nay am’chah beit Yisroel, v’al play’tah sof’ray’hem, v’al gay’ray ha’tzedek.” We pray for the righteous, for the devout, for the elders, for the remnant of the scholars, and for the righteous converts of Israel.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the redeemer of Israel, the Messiah himself, is expected to be a descendant of perhaps the most famous convert to Judaism, Ruth the Moabite.

To underscore how special converts can be, I share with you the following remarkable letter that I received in December 2003:

Dear Rabbi Buchwald,

This comes to wish you and your family a happy Hanukkah and to share with you our joy in all you have done for our son, Baruch! We are very grateful to you, and to the Beginners class at Lincoln Square Synagogue, for welcoming him, nurturing him and converting him to Judaism, with which he feels so very much “at home.” I had the same feeling when I, attending your service, participated in the prayers and songs, heard the lesson and partook of the delightful lunch afterwards. I can understand his joy and his peace and his love for Torah.

Thank you so much!
Barbara and Bob xxxxxx

This letter is from the non-Jewish mother of Bob [Baruch] who attended the Lincoln Square Synagogue Beginners Service. Bob, 24 years old, is a graduate of Princeton and holds an MA in Philosophy from Oxford University. He is currently studying in a Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Israel.

Alas! If only Jewish mothers would be so positive and so grateful when their children become observant.

Wishing you a very happy and meaningful Shavuot holiday!

For more information regarding converts see Parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha 5761-2001.

May you be blessed.