David Walk

One Rule for You

In the wake of the Sin of the Spies and the anguish it engendered for those destined to die in the desert, the Torah initiates a few fascinating Mitzvot. These Mitzvot are directly connected to living in Eretz Yisrael. There is no irony intended. These precepts are, instead, a promise that Jews will indeed live in the Holy Land. Even though this generation won’t enter the Land, their progeny will fulfill these holy precepts. So, the chapter right after the story of the sin and the punishment, begins: When you enter the Land which I am giving you to settle in…(Bamidbar 15:2). Let’s investigate one of the fascinating details in one of these laws.

 The next section begins: And when a sojourner (Prof. Robert Alter, but Kaplan renders it ‘proselyte’, JPS ‘stranger’) joins you, or lives among you in future generations, and this person prepares a fire offering of pleasant fragrance; it must be done in the exact same manner in which you do it’ (15:14). Two verses later this concept is reinforced: There shall thus be one Torah and one Law for you and the sojourner (convert?) who joins you.

Throughout Jewish history many fascinating conclusions have been drawn from these statements. The most famous is best expressed by the late Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

The second dimension, equally radical, and essentially tied to Israel’s experience of exile, is concern for the rights and welfare of the stranger. The Mosaic books never tire of this theme – the rabbis pointed out that whereas the Torah in one place commands love of the neighbor, in no fewer than thirty-six places it urges love of the stranger…This is the second revolution of the Exodus, and part of Israel’s moral struggle against tribalism and its modern successor, xenophobic nationalism. Strangers, too, have rights and make a legitimate claim on our humanity, for we are all strangers to someone else. 

I find the conclusion of the Netziv to be equally fascinating:

The teachings that the sages of each generation add are called “law” (“Torah“). And a commandment matter which is not explicit in the Torah is a just “ordinance” (MISHPAT) based on the intellect. And see that Scripture calls commandments that are explicit in the Torah “statute”, even if they do have a reason. In any case, even where the reason is missing, the commandment stands its ground. For once they are explicit in the Torah, they are statutes which the Heavens and the Earth stand upon. However, the teachings of the Sages of the generation go along with the reasoning, so as soon as the reason changes, the rule changes.

The Netziv was expressing the traditional Rabbinic position that rabbinic rules and customs are by their very nature conditional on the circumstances which initiated them. However, Jews over the ages have difficulty shedding any enactment or custom. It’s a shame because the wise scholars who instituted these customs often had very different circumstances than those under which we live. Black hats and jackets make a lot of sense when it’s over 100 Fahrenheit (37.8 C), right?

The great Italian-Jewish scholar Shmuel David Luzatto (1800-1865) saw another salient issue in our verses. He believed strongly that our verses were demanding the uniform use of the central cultic center of the nation (initially at Shiloh and, later, at Yerushalayim). His concern was twofold: 1. For if the entire people had one sanctuary, they would all gather together in one place, their hearts would be bound in brotherhood; and 2. It is also possible (if everyone had his own BAMAH, high place or altar) that the sacrificial service would be undermined by a family or a tribe and they would alter its provisions. And little by little they would adopt the statutes of the nations and customs that are detestable to the Blessed One, to the point of sacrificing their own sons and daughters.  

But the biggest takeaways from our couple of verses have to do with converts. Perhaps the greatest of those is from the Talmud: Rav Acha bar Ya’akov said, ‘The verse, ‘When (in the future) a GER will dwell with you’ informs us that we will always accept GERIM into the future (Keritut 9a). 

Maybe the most famous use of these verses, though, was by the Rambam. Maimonides was sent a query by Rav Ovadia the Proselyte (b. Johannes of Oppido, 1070). This famous and pious convert wanted to know if he could recite all the prayers just like those who were born Jewish. His problem was: How could he say, ‘Our God and God of our Ancestors’, if he isn’t an ancestor of the Patriarchs?

The Rambam, beside quoting our verses, powerfully declared:

Rather, you shall bless and pray in the same way that every natural-born Jew blesses and prays, whether as an individual or when leading the congregation. The principle of this matter is that our patriarch Abraham taught all the people, and brought them knowledge of true faith and God’s singularity. He rejected idolatry and abolished its worship; he brought many under the wings of the Divine Presence, and he ordered his sons and the members of his household to keep the ways of God, as it is written: “For I have known him, that he will command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of God…” (Bereishit 18:19). Thus, anyone throughout history who converts, and anyone who declares the unity of God’s name as the Torah states, is a disciple of our patriarch Abraham and a member of his household.  

I wish that we had scholars with just a fraction of his bravery and clarity in our difficult times. 

More recently Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik also weighed in on the significance of our verses on the issue of converts. The Rav expanded the ideas about proselytes to teach each of us crucial ideas:

A gentile who wishes to join the nation must take upon himself both covenants.  He places himself in the ambit of Jewish fate and sanctifies himself for the acceptance of the Jewish destiny.  The act of conversion involves associating oneself as a member of the people of the Covenants of Egypt and of Sinai.  Keep this important principle in mind:  there is no such thing as partial conversion.  One cannot omit one iota of either of these two Covenants.  Total devotion to the Jewish people—as a nation that God took to Himself in Egypt, with all its tribulations, suffering, responsibilities, and actions; and as a holy people that is itself consecrated, heart and soul, to the God of Israel and His halakhic and moral demands—is the absolute foundation of Judaism and hence is also the basis of conversion. (Kol Dodi Dofek: Listen—My Beloved Knocks, 75).

In the wake of one of the greatest disasters in Jewish history, God informs Moshe Rabbeinu and us that there will be a great future for the Jewish people. This great destiny requires a commitment to certain basic ideas about ritual, community and our peoplehood that will bind us eternally to God and Israel.

These difficult days we must remember that adversity throughout Jewish history must be seen as a catalyst for unity and commitment. May we find the strength to emerge from our present adversity stronger and more unified!!


About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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