The following is an excerpt from Yisroel’s new book “Your People are my People: Inspiring Stories of Converts to Judaism” which is available on Amazon here.
The beautiful holiday of Shavuot is almost upon us. Although, as we know, it celebrates the giving of the Torah, there is also another celebration; namely the enormous contributions of converts to Judaism. On Shavuot, we read the story of Rut (Ruth), the famous biblical heroine who converted to Judaism. Also, the Torah was given in the Torah portion of Yitro (Jethro), another famous convert to Judaism. Let us take a moment and examine each of their unique stories.
Let us first look at Yitro. Little is mentioned about is background, but he is called the Priest of Midian. The commentators say he had dabbled in every type of idol worship at the time, until “he heard” as the Torah writes. What precisely did he hear? Rashi, the great French medieval commentator says that he heard about the war the Jewish People had with Amalek. The question is, what was so special about that war? After all, that war came after the greatest miracles ever recorded in the Torah, namely the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea? Why didn’t those miracles stir feelings in Yitro to convert to Judaism?
The answer may be something much deeper than the simple text. The commentators say that during this war, when Moshe (Moses) raised his hands toward Heaven, the Jewish People were starting to win the war, but when his hands started collapsing toward the ground, the Jewish People started losing the war. How are we to understand this? Did Moshe’s strength in being able to hold up his arms really have a bearing on the war? The Chassidic masters explain beautifully; Moshe’s hands were symbolic in the Jewish People’s faith at that moment. When their faith was strong, when they found the strength of looking Heavenward, they were victorious. When they did not, they succumbed to feeling the pangs of defeat. So, within this simple yet profound understanding, we see the incredible power of Faith. Faith has the very real power of moving worlds, of causing everlasting changes in our daily lives. Perhaps, this is was moved Yitro, seeing not only the Divine Hand in the Jewish People, but also how their Faith in Him had the ability to alter world history. Yitro wanted to be a part of this. Having miracles occur when one is unworthy, such as the Ten Plagues, may be impressive, but not extraordinary. But being able to see that our faith has meaning and can shake the very foundations of the natural world order, this is what motivated Yitro to become part of our People.
And what became of Yitro? He had the privilege of having his daughter Zipporah marry Moses, the greatest Prophet the Jewish People have ever had. Furthermore, he was entrusted by Moshe with setting up a comprehensive Judicial system, thereby ensuring the Law of Moshe would be sustained throughout the land and preserved for future generations. And perhaps, greatest of all, the giving of the Torah, complete with the Sinai Revelation occurred in his Torah portion, the Parsha of Yitro.
Let us now turn to the other great convert in the written Torah, namely Ruth. Ruth, as the Torah writes, was not just any woman, she was a Moabite Princess. She married a Jewish man, whose father Avimelech, a former member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Tribunal. The Moabites at the time were among the most powerful culture in the world. As such, she could have amassed much wealth, comfort, and prestige. Yet, she chose to sacrifice it all for what she believed to be eternal truth. Naomi, her mother, tried her best to discourage her from following her to Israel, where a famine ravaged the Holy Land. Her words were immortal, and have been quoted frequently ever since, including in the name of this book: “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God is my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” She had chosen her lot, and her destiny was forever changed. For what became of her in the end? She met Boaz, a wealthy aristocrat, who was also a member of the Sanhedrin and the two fell in love and eventually married. We see a great lesson, the great Boaz, a prominent Jewish leader, had no qualms whatsoever with marrying a Convert, in fact he considered it to be an honor, a lesson for us all today. This union with Boaz would lead to a child which would lead to another child, who was none other the King David, the great ruler and author of the Book of Psalms. And who would come from King David, the Sweet Singer of Israel? None other than the Messiah himself, let his coming be soon.
So, what Yitro taught us with Faith, Ruth taught us with Sacrifice. Both pillars of Jewish tradition, both embedded in the fabric of our People in ways few others have been able to achieve. One instrumental in the story of Moses, the greatest of all Prophets, the other to King David, the greatest monarch the Jewish People ever had.
It is said in our tradition that all Jews stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, not only born Jews, but future converts as well. Converts are described in the Talmud in some ways much loftier than born Jews. Converts are often called “Bnai Avraham”, that is, the Children of Abraham. There is a verse in the Torah, which calls Abraham “the Noble One.” The Talmud asks why was Abraham the only one who was called the Noble One? Why not the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs? The Talmud answers because it was only Abraham who went against the grain of the world in his search for Truth. He had the insight and courage to seek out the truth and choose Monotheism over Polytheism. It was he, and only he, who withstood ten difficult trials to show his devotion to his Creator. And so, it is only he who can be called the Noble One, for this is what true nobility means. In fact, Avraham is called early in the Torah “Ha-Ivri,” which is often translated simply as “The Hebrew.” However, the Hebrew root word “Ebor” can also mean “Side.” The commentators homiletically interpret it in a deeper way. It is as if the entire world stood on one side, and Abraham bravely leapt to the Other Side, in his quest for Truth. And is this not the story of every Jewish convert? Noble people who went against their upbringing and background, and made that leap to the Other Side in their search for absolute Truth?
Moses, the greatest Prophet who has ever lived, and spoke to God face to Face, still sought counsel from Yitro. After the Sin of the Spies, Yitro sought to return home, perhaps just for a brief leave. But Moses said to him “Please don’t leave, for you are our eyes.” What did he mean by “You are our eyes?” Perhaps as an outsider who had come into the fold, Yitro possessed greater insight into the world and even into Judaism than those who had been born into the Faith. For he had seen the world, explored other Faiths, and yet arrived at this truth on his own. For this, he had the eyes to see what others could not.
There are other well-known Proselytes in the Jewish tradition. The great Onkules, a nephew of the emperor Titus, is mentioned in the Talmud, who wrote an Aramaic translation of the entire written Torah, the common vernacular of the time, to make the Torah more accessible to the masses. And Rabbi Akiva, one of the great Talmudic sages, descended from Converts, and was an ignoramus on Jewish knowledge till the age of 40. It was then, as the Talmud records the famous story, where he saw a stream with water dripping onto a rock. Over the course of many centuries, the water had pierced a hole through the rock. Rabbi Akiva was touched by this simple act of nature. He said to himself “If water can eventually pierce a rock, perhaps the Torah, which is compared to water, can piece the rock which is my own heart?” And so, at the age of 40, he went off to study Torah, and soon became known as one of the greatest sages of his time, having amassed over 24,000 students.
So, what can we do on a more practical level to help appreciate the Jewish Convert? Just about every one of us know a convert to Judaism. Now is the time to invite them over for the holiday or a Shabbat meal. Let them know that they are not an outsider at all, but rather they are a welcome part of the Jewish community. And let them know how appreciated they are.