King David said to Hashem: “My tongue shall proclaim Your word, for all Your mitzvos are righteous” (Psalm 119:172).
We became the people of the Torah at Mount Sinai through accepting the Torah and its righteous path of mitzvos (Exodus 24:7). A convert who wishes to join the people of the Torah must therefore accept the Torah and its righteous path of mitzvos. This may be why the traditional Hebrew term for a convert is ger tzedek – a convert for righteousness.
Each ger tzedek therefore reminds us that we have a spiritual identity as the people of the Torah. And during the Festival of Shavuos, when we commemorate the giving of the Torah, we chant the Book of Ruth – the story of a ger tzedek.
In the spirit of the Book of Ruth, I will share with you an amazing story of a ger tzedek whose strong courage and deep faith became a source of great inspiration for our people.
There was a leading sage of the 18th century who lived in Vilna, Lithuania, and he was known as the Vilna Gaon. During his era, there was a ger tzedek from Vilna who was known as Avraham ben Avraham. He was a count from a leading Polish noble family, and before his conversion, he was known as Count Potocki. His parents sent him to study in the University of Paris, and it was in Paris that he somehow became attracted to the spiritual path of the Jewish people. He left Paris for Amsterdam, where he began a serious study of Torah which led to his conversion. He later returned to his native Lithuania, and settled in Vilna. (Lithuania was then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.)
In Vilna, he took up residence in one of the batei midrash (houses of Torah study), where he studied all day long. There were righteous Jewish women of Vilna who had undertaken to prepare meals for dedicated individuals who were studying Torah all day in the batei midrash, and these righteous women added the young convert to their list of those receiving meals.
In the meanwhile, Avraham ben Avraham’s family had been conducting a prolonged search for him, and eventually located him in Vilna. His family used all the resources at its command in an attempt to convince him to return to the Church, but to no avail. Despite all the pressure the family could muster, they were unable to convince Avraham ben Avraham to renounce his commitment to the spiritual path of the Jewish people.
Realizing the futility of their efforts, the Poticki family turned their son over to the Catholic Church. Avraham ben Avraham was then subjected to cruel physical torture; however, he showed not the slightest willingness to abandon the path that he had chosen. His inquisitors therefore decided that he should be burned at the stake. Even that verdict gained the youth no relief from the efforts of his inquisitors to convince him to renounce his path, but they did not succeed.
The fate of Avraham ben Avraham moved all of Vilna Jewry, no one more so than the Vilna Gaon. Avraham ben Avraham was being kept in a prison, and while he was there, the Gaon managed to send the young ger tzedek messages in which he offered his support and wished him the strength to withstand all the pressures being exerted upon him. The Gaon also offered to use his knowledge of practical Kabbalah (the secret wisdom of the Torah) to free Avraham from his tormentors. According to the tradition cited by Rav Aharon Kotler, a leading sage of the 20th century, Avraham rejected the Gaon’s proffered help, telling the messenger sent by the Gaon:
“Since I first recognized the true God, I prayed that I might be granted the opportunity to sanctify His Name. Now that I have been granted that opportunity, I do not wish to forgo it.”
The Vilna Gaon also managed to visit Avraham ben Avraham in his prison cell. Finding the young ger tzedek greatly distressed and weeping, he sought to console him by telling him that within a few days he would reach the rung that Rabbi Akiva prayed for all his life when he asked that he would have the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah to serve Hashem with “your whole life” (Deuteronomy 6:5). The Gaon assured him that for sanctifying the Divine Name in public he would enjoy an exalted place in the World to Come. Avraham explained that he was not crying because he was about to die. He was crying because he had no Jewish parents; moreover, he had no Jewish siblings or Jewish children. He therefore felt sad for “not having set down any roots within the nation of Israel.” The Vilna Gaon began his reply by citing the following Divine statement:
“I am the first, and I am the last, and aside from Me, there is no God” (Isaiah 44:6)
Based on a Midrash, the Vilna Gaon conveyed to Avraham the following interpretation:
“I am the First” – This means that Hashem is the Father of all the fatherless who come under the wings of the Shechinah (Divine Presence).
“And I am the Last” – This means that if such a person has no children, Hashem is His child. Hashem says, “I am better for him than ten children.”
Hashem is therefore the past and the future of Avraham, and others like him.
Avraham ben Avraham was executed by the church officials on the second day of the Festival of Shavuos. (In the Diaspora, Shavous is observed on two days, and in the Land of Israel, Shavuos is observed on one day.) Every Shavuos, the Jews of Vilna would sing the melody and words that Avraham ben Avraham sang on his way to martyrdom. The words are:
“But we are your nation, the children of Your covenant!”
The above words are from the prayer, “Ribon Kol Ha-Olamim” – Master of All Worlds – an introductory morning prayer. These were the words that Avraham ben Avraham chose to sing before he gave up his life for Kiddush Hashem – the Sanctification of the Divine Name.
Each convert who joins our people through accepting the covenant of the Torah serves as a reminder that we are a people with a spiritual identity. We need this awareness in order to fulfill our spiritual mission in Zion. May these converts therefore inspire all the members of our people to join together and sing to Hashem: “But we are your nation, the children of Your covenant!”
Have a Chag Samayach – A Joyous Festival,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. Shavuos begins Tuesday evening, and the candles are lit before sunset.
2. Information on the life and teachings of Avraham ben Avraham can be found in the following books which also have a picture of his tombstone in the Vilna Jewish cemetery:
“The Vilna Gaon” by Betzalel Landau
“The Chafetz Chaim” by Rabbi Moses M.Yoshor
For information on these books, visit: www.artscroll.com
The story of the Vilna Gaon’s visit to Reb Avraham in prison is also found in the “Talelei Oros Haggadah” (page 368, English edition). This Haggadah mentions that the story is found in “Sefer Kovetz Yeshurun” – a collection of stories involving the Vilna Gaon, and the story is cited by Rav Boruch Dov Leibowitz, a leading sage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who was the head of the Kamenetz Yeshiva. I recently found this story in the following biography of Rav Boruch Dov Leibowitz: “Reb Boruch Ber” by Rabbi Chaim Shlomo Rosenthal. It is published by Feldheim: www.feldheim.com .
3. A related letter, “The Fruits of Zion’s Barren Trees,” discusses the concept of spiritual children. It appears in the archive of our series, and the following is a direct link: http://www.shemayisrael.com/publicat/hazon/tzedaka/fruits.htm
A copy can be sent to you via e-mail upon request.
4. In a previous letter of this series, we discussed Torah teachings which reveal that Avraham, our father, is also the father of all gerei tzedek. The following is a direct link to this letter: http://www.shemayisrael.com/publicat/hazon/tzedaka/abrahamfather.htm
A copy can be sent to you via e-mail upon request.