Mitzvot Connected to the Exodus, Part VII: Being Extra Careful with How We Treat Converts

The Torah tells us not to mistreat the convert verbally or financially, and repeats it for emphasis in numerous places.  It also tells us, repeatedly, that we can’t do this because we should remember how we were in a similar position in Egypt. Why wouldn’t it enough for the Torah to single them out for extra care, because of their own situation?

The Talmudic Versions, Recorded by Rashi

Rashi reflects different views in Talmudic sources. In Shemot 22;20, he says we should not point out in others a blemish we have ourselves.  Although he doesn’t detail why this counts as a “blemish that we have,” it seems to me to assume that when we mock or mistreat others for being strangers, it is connected to their oddness, their being slightly out of step with our ways of life.

But we too, from our first moments as a people, were strangers, struggling to keep up with a different culture. Our memory of when we were out of step and odd should stop us from looking down on others in that situation. And, since Hashem brought us there deliberately, it seems likely this was intentional, to mold us into a people who would always be sensitive to that difficulty, to prevent us from ever looking down on others for their understandable uncertainty.

That would seem to be a broader message than just when we are dealing with a stranger/convert. Part of being the people who left Egypt should mean that whatever confidence we’ve gained shouldn’t wipe out our memory of when we were stumbling and unsure, and that should translate into compassion and empathy for others who are stumbling or unsure.

It Hits Them Differently, and They Might Chuck It

Another option, that of R. Eliezer, is recorded by Rashi to Horayot 13a, שסורו רע, which Rashi seems to take to mean they are more prone to sin; perhaps because they are newer to it, they have a looser hold on mores that seem second nature to us, and we therefore have to be more careful to avoid being the cause of their slipping into sin.

Sefer haChinuch, Mitzvah 63, offers a simpler reading, that they might decide to abandon the whole project, and we will, unwittingly, be the cause of them leaving Jewish observance. Either way, we are being reminded of a time when our connection to a way of life was tenuous. Realizing that stranger/ converts are at that delicate stage should impel us to avoid doing anything to jeopardize that.

It Hurts Them More

Shemot 23;9 reminds us that we know the soul of the stranger, which Rashi understands as a reference to the stranger’s feeling more imposed upon than others when treated the exact same way. Sefer haChinuch, Mitzvah 63, suggests that stems from their relative defenselessness, their lack of a set of friends and relatives who see it as their privilege and responsibility to stand up for them.

Along similar lines, Akedat Yitzchak, the philosophical/homiletical Torah commentary of R. Yitzchak Arama (15th century Spain), suggests that there is an insecurity to being a stranger, even if that stranger comes with a support system. We went to Egypt with seventy family members and much wealth; over time, the Egyptians still enslaved us, with our not being natives a vital first step in their doing that.

Second, Akedat Yitzchak argues, the stranger/convert will interpret any attacks—even a lawsuit, the same a Jew would bring against any other fellow Jew, in the ordinary course of business life—as being a result of his or her status.

And we should know that because we had that same sense in Egypt.  Even when we feel comfortable, if we see members of a class that experiences inappropriate discrimination, we should keep in mind that they may interpret any slight, however disconnected from their outsider status, as a function of that status. It is our job to be sure that doesn’t happen.

Ramban and R. Bechaye: Egypt as a Window on Hashem

Ramban says our assumption that strangers have no protectors is itself the error.  As former strangers, we should know Hashem comes to the aid of such people (as Hashem came to ours). Our need to remember Egypt, for Ramban, isn’t only about sensitivity or humility, it’s about keeping in mind the picture Hashem painted for us, of a Universe whose Master has a particular concern for the helpless and the weak.

R. Bechaye says Egypt should make us aware that treating the stranger/convert with care is an example of imitatio Dei, of emulating how Hashem acts, part of shaping our characters to be more God-like, as it were.

Minchat Chinuch: How Far Does the Status of Ger Go?

Minchat Chinuch has a few particularly perceptive questions about how far these rules go. The one I have space for here wonders how long the status lasts.  If a convert marries a convert, and their children marry converts, etc. (imagine a whole community that converts, and marries only within that community), are the fourth or fifth generation still converts in terms of these obligations? They are not defenseless, have a well-established communal base and protective system of friends and family.

On the other hand, he notes, they do count as converts in other halachic issues (such as for being appointed king). I would add that for all that they have some support, they still obviously feel like outsiders, since they keep strictly to themselves.

After all, the Torah refers to us as strangers the whole time we were in Egypt, not just the first generation. The same applies to converts, I think; as long as they haven’t intermarried with ordinary Jews, for whatever reason, they are separate, and we have to worry that they feel that separateness, and therefore have to treat them with the Torah-mandated care for their feelings and sensitivities.

Loving the Convert: Just the Flip Side?

The Torah also obligates us to love the convert, as in Vayikra 19;34 and Devarim 10;19, again explicitly connecting it to our having been strangers in Egypt.  Rashi and Sefer haChinuch seem to see this as just another way of saying we cannot mistreat the convert/stranger.

But Rambam, obligation 207 of the Sefer haMitzvot, says Hashem added a commandment to love the convert because s/he came to join our Torah.  For Rambam, loving the convert is more than just remembering what Egypt did to us, it is also a reaction to the remarkable choice they made, to join our people and our worldview.  R. Bechaye to Devarim notes (as he had in the prohibitions against mistreating the convert) that loving the convert emulates Hashem, since Devarim 10;18 speaks of Hashem’s loving the convert.

Often there’s a middle ground in life; when it comes to loving and welcoming the stranger/convert, it seems like it’s much less so. We can welcome them enthusiastically and lovingly, or not. But if not, we seem to be headed in a bad direction. So let’s do the first.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
Related Topics
Related Posts