Jews by Choice

Rabbi Reuven Mann 

This week’s Parsha, Beha’alotcha, describes the sanctification of the Levites for their service in the Mishkan. Originally this privilege was to be distributed in a more "democratic" fashion. It was not to be confined to one tribe but available to any “bechor” ie. the first born male in a family.

The bechor had a special status in the Jewish nation. To this day the father must "redeem" this child in a ceremony known as Pidyon Haben. The mitzvah has it's origin in the last plague which Hashem visited upon Egypt, the slaying of the first born.

In executing this judgement Hashem distinguished between the Jewish males, who He protected and the Egyptian offspring who were destroyed. When we are the beneficiaries of Divine favor we incur a debt. The bechor must recognize that he was saved in order to serve Hashem. It was intended that he would assist the Kohanim in their Temple service.

However this great benefit was rescinded as a result of the sin of the Golden Calf. The first born did not refrain from this transgression. Only the tribe of Levi absolutely avoided the temptation of idolatry. Not only that but they dealt justice to the sinners without concern for any consequences. Their loyalty to the pure and undiluted worship of the Creator, which is the fundamental foundation of Judaism, facilitated their displacement of the first born in the Temple Service.

Once the construction of the Mishkan, and the consecration of its priests was completed, the People commenced the journey which would bring them, in a very short time, to the gates of the Promised land. The Torah records a conversation in which Moshe implores his father in law, Yitro, to join them in their conquest and settlement of the land.

For some reason, which is not entirely clear, Yitro demurred saying, “I will not go but, rather, to my land and birthplace will I go.” Moshe persisted, reminding him of how helpful his advice and insight had been and that if he stayed with them he would partake of the great good which Hashem had guaranteed His People.

The question arises, what is so important about this conversation that warranted its inclusion in the Torah? What spiritual lesson are we supposed to derive from it?

Yitro was a great man who had the courage to renounce idolatry and withstand the persecution that he and his family were subjected to because of his belief in the true G-D. After the Exodus he left his home and made the arduous wilderness journey to be reunited with Moshe.

Yitro’s goal was to study the meaning of the events, in depth, with the greatest teacher, Moshe Rabennu. The lessons he learned had a transformative impact on Yitro. He blessed Hashem for all that He had done for the Jews and offered sacrifices to Him. According to the Rabbis he then converted to Judaism.

In light of this it is difficult to understand Yitro’s reluctance to go with the Jews to the land of Israel. An interpretation of Rashi is illuminating. Commenting on Moshe’s statement, “You will be unto us as eyes…” Rashi says, “as beloved as the ball of our eyes, as it says, and you shall love the stranger, (convert).”

Apparently, Yitro did not know what standing he would have in the Jewish nation. Moshe, therefore, revealed a vital principle of the Torah. The convert is not a second class citizen or inferior in any way. It is natural in any organized group for the establishment to feel superior to to the “outsider” or newcomer.

Jews may not feel they are better than those who were not “frum (observant) from birth,” nor may they look down, in any way, upon the convert. Hashem has bestowed great honor upon the “ger” (convert). There are two commandments enjoining us to love the stranger. Firstly, he is included in the general mitzvah of “And you shall love your friend as your self.” Secondly, he is the subject of a special mitzvah designed exclusively for him, “And you shall love the ger.” The Rambam teaches that Hashem loves the stranger as it says, “And He loves the Ger.” The reason for this is because the convert has abandoned his family and nation in order to come under the protection of the Shechina (Divine Presence).

Moshe reassured Yitro that he would have a prominent place among the Jews and that his his talents would be fully utilized and appreciated. There is a lot that we can learn from Moshe’s dialogue with his father in law. Most of us did not choose to embrace Judaism and often take it for granted. Would we be Jewish if we didn’t have to, if we had had the choice to be exempt from the “Yoke of the commandments?” If fate had dealt us a different hand, would we have the courage and commitment to leave our family and cast our lot with the Jews, simply because of our love for Hashem and His Torah?

We will never know but should be inspired to recognize that such people exist and are to be respected and loved.

Shabbat shalom