“Apparently, Not All Converts are Created Equal”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, arrives in the wilderness to join Moses and the People of Israel.

Scripture relates that when he heard that G-d had taken the Israelites out of Egypt and about all that G-d had done to Moses and to Israel, Jethro, the High Priest of Midian, took Zipporah, the wife of Moses, and their two sons, to the wilderness near the Mountain of G-d where the Jewish people were encamped.

Moses gives his father-in-law a very warm welcome and tells Jethro all that G-d had done to Pharaoh and to Egypt for Israel’s sake, and of the peoples’ miraculous rescue at the hands of G-d.

Jethro then blesses G-d, making the following declaration, Exodus 18:11: עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי גָדוֹל השׁם מִכָּל הָאֱ־לֹקִים, כִּי בַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר זָדוּ עֲלֵיהֶם, “Now I know that G-d is the greatest of all the gods, for in the very matter in which the Egyptians had conspired against them… [by drowning them in the sea], they experienced their final downfall.”

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in his wonderful collection of essays on the weekly Torah portion, Chemdat Yamim, cites Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, who writes in his book, Derech Hashem, that after their fall in the Garden of Eden, humankind experienced difficulty reaching the highest levels of humanity and spirituality. But, according to Luzzatto, G-d provided the people a way of regaining their exalted spirituality, by offering the Torah to the world. Unfortunately, of all the nations who were offered the Torah, only the Jews accepted it. And, now, because the nations of the world rejected the Torah, they can only achieve the highest level of spirituality by formally converting to Judaism.

Although not all agree with Luzzatto’s theory of the downfall of humankind, almost all agree that the way to regain the highest level of spirituality, is by converting to Judaism and embracing Torah.

As we know, the ancient Israelites themselves had a difficult time maintaining a high level of spirituality. They continuously sinned, constantly complained and frequently rebelled against G-d and Moses. Soon after the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea, two groups of people began to rebel. One group was called the עֵרֶב רַב (Exodus 12:38), the mixed multitude and the other, the אֲסַפְסֻף (Numbers 11:4) (מִתְאֹנְנִים Mitonehnim Numbers 11:1?). These rebellious acts were followed by the sin of the Golden Calf.

Rabbi Filber cites a series of midrashim that maintain that there was a major difference of opinion between G-d and Moses, regarding whether to accept Egyptian “converts” into the midst of the Jewish people. According to many opinions, both the עֵרֶב רַב and אֲסַפְסֻף were Egyptians who saw the Hand of G-d in the ten plagues, and sought to embrace G-d and join the Jewish people.

According to these midrashim, G-d was reluctant to accept these “reborn” Egyptians into Israel, because He felt that they were not sufficiently sincere. Moses insisted that they be given a chance, and cited the paradigm of Abraham and the souls that he had made in Haran (Genesis 12:5) to justify their joining the people.

G-d argued with Moses, saying that most of Abraham’s converts ultimately abandoned him. Moses responded that the contemporary Egyptian seekers were different, since the converts of Abraham were people who had responded to Abraham’s outreach overtures and his desire to welcome them into his open tent. The Egyptian mixed multitude, on the other hand, were self-motivated, seeking to embrace G-d, because they personally witnessed and experienced the miracles of the Al-mighty.

Rabbi Filber notes, that unfortunately, Moses was proven wrong. The sense of commitment of the mixed multitude and the אֲסַפְסֻף was indeed lacking. Their “faith” was not rooted in dedication or study, but rather a result of being overwhelmed by miracles.

Rabbi Filber also suggests that those who sinned with the Golden Calf were also Egyptian converts to Judaism. This opinion is based on the fact that when the rebellion begins, G-d says to Moses to go down from the mountain (Exodus 32:7), כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ, for your people have sinned. Meaning, that “it is the people that you [Moses], against My advice, allowed to join Israel!”

Jethro, on the other hand, is seen as the paradigm of the גֵּר צֶדֶק, the truly righteous convert. The midrash says that there was not a single pagan deity or idolatry that Jethro had not embraced or experimented with. It was only after Jethro studied all of the religions, that he came to the conclusion that Israel’s G-d was the one true G-d. As a result of his newly-adopted monotheistic beliefs, Jethro was declared a heretic by the Midianites, and deposed from the high priesthood of Midian. Banned, banished and isolated, the locals even refused to allow Jethro’s flocks to graze in the fields, and chased his daughters away from the well, as punishment for Jethro’s blasphemous actions.

It is Jethro, the prototypical convert, who shares his wisdom to the great benefit of the Jewish people. It is he who advises Moses to set up an effective judicial court system, that would benefit the entire nation.

It is due to the outstanding nature and commitment of Jethro, that he merits to have an entire parasha of the Torah named for him. It is in the merit of righteous converts, such as Jethro, that the Jewish people are enriched and elevated to an even higher level than they were before. It is for the sake of righteous converts, like Jethro, that we pray daily, that G-d’s blessing and mercy be bestowed upon them.

May you be blessed.

Please note: On Sunday night and Monday, January 24th and 25th, we celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel, it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu b’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat the special species of fruit that grow in the land of Israel.