In this letter, I shall begin to discuss why a convert who joins our people through accepting the path of the Torah is called a ger tzedek – a convert for righteousness and justice. The discussion will begin with some teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch regarding the deeper meaning of tzedek:
The Hebrew word tzedek connotes both righteousness and justice. A related word which is derived from tzedek is tzedakah – a word which often refers to the sharing of our resources with those in need. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discusses the altruistic meaning of tzedek and the related word tzedakah in his commentary on the Torah, and he writes:
“Tzedek is phonetically related to the Aramaic word shedech: to soothe, satisfy, sustain; in other words, to give the other person what he needs, to be good to him, to seek his welfare and well-being. Tzedek rectifies the world and promotes the happiness of the individual and the community. Through the attribute of tzedek, every creature will have the benefit of the conditions intended for it by Divine design. Tzedek is the goal of God’s direction of the world. From the human being’s point of view, tzedek is the ideal. Any Divine or human act that brings the individual or community nearer to this goal is tzedakah.” (Commentary on Genesis 15:6)
“Through the attribute of tzedek, every creature will have the benefit of the conditions intended for it by Devine design.” This explanation can help us to understand another word which is derived from tzedek. This word is tzadik – a righteous person. In his explanation of this word, Rabbi Hirsch writes: “A tzadik is one who gives everyone and everything their due” (commentary on Genesis 6:9).
In his work, Horeb, which discusses the Torah’s path of mitzvos, Rabbi Hirsch offers additional insights on the meaning of tzedek. He explains that the altruistic goal of giving everyone and everything their due is also a form of justice, which means, “allowing each creature all that it may expect as the portion allotted to it by God.” Rabbi Hirsch adds:
“And though we conceive of your life’s task as justice and love, love itself is nothing but justice. It is love as applied to other creatures, but it is justice as applied to your and their Creator, Who enjoins love for His creatures.” (Chapter 44)
If the Creator “enjoins” – commands – love for His creatures, then they are justly entitled to our love.
Tzedek is therefore the Divine goal for the world, and we attain the Divine goal of tzedek through the Torah’s path of mitzvos. A source for this idea can be found in the following prayer of King David to Hashem:
“My tongue shall proclaim Your word, for all Your mitzvos are tzedek.” (Psalm 119:172)
In what way are all the mitzvos expressions of tzedek? I found an answer in chapter 44 of Horeb. In this chapter, Rabbi Hirsch explains that some mitzvos are acts of tzedek to human beings, some mitzvos are acts of tzedek towards other creatures, and some mitzvos are acts of tzedek to the earth itself. In addition, there are mitzvos which teach us how to do acts of tzedek to our body, mind, and spirit.
In what way do those mitzvos which are Divine prohibitions express the principle of tzedek? These mitzvos prevent us from acting in an unjust manner towards any of the above.
The convert who accepts the responsibility to fulfill the mitzvos – the Torah’s path of tzedek – is therefore called a ger tzedek. It is this commitment which enables the convert to become a member of Israel – the people of the Covenant. Just as all Israel became the people of the Covenant by proclaiming at Mount Sinai: “Everything that Hashem has spoken, we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7), so too, the convert joins our people by making a similar commitment. Our tradition finds a reference to this idea in the following Divine statement: “The convert who dwells with you shall be like a native among you” (Leviticus 19:34). According to our tradition, these words are revealing the following guideline which the rabbinical court that accepts the convert must follow:
Just as the native Israelite accepted all the words of the Torah, so does the convert. (Toras Kohanim)
In this spirit, Hashem told our people on a number of occasions that there shall be one “Torah” – Teaching – for the native Israelite and the convert. For example, regarding the mitzvos related to the Passover offering, Hashem said:
“There shall be one Teaching for the native and for the convert who dwells in your midst.” (Exodus 12:49).
What if a convert joins our people through a sincere commitment to fulfill all the mitzvos of the Torah’s path of tzedek, but who later stumbles through failing to fulfill a mitzvah? This does not change the status of this convert, for the convert became an Israelite with the initial sincere commitment, and regarding all Israelites, the Talmud states: “Even if one sinned, one is still an Israelite” (Sanhedrin 44a).
I will conclude this letter with related teachings which can enhance our understanding of the relationship of the gerei tzedek to the Promised Land. Moshe Rebbeinu and our other prophets stress that we were given the mitzvos of the Torah, in order to fulfill them in the Land. For example, when we stood at the borders of the Promised Land, Moshe proclaimed to our people:
“See! I have taught you statutes and social laws, as Hashem, my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come to possess it.” (Deuteronomy 4:5)
The goal of our fulfilling the mitzvos in the Land is to achieve the Divine goal of tzedek; thus, Moshe also proclaimed:
“Tzedek, tzedek, shall you pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which Hashem, your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)
In his commentary on the above verse, Rabbi Hirsch explains that we achieve the goal of tzedek through “forming all private and public matters in accordance with God’s Torah,” and he adds: “To pursue this goal unceasingly with all devotion is Israel’s one task; with that it has done everything to secure its physical and political existence.”
We are to pursue this goal unceasingly with all devotion; thus, in a later generation, the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed to our people: “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still, until her tzedek emanates like bright light” (Isaiah 62:1).
Isaiah adds: “Nations will perceive your tzedek” (62:2). Through fulfilling the mitzvos of the Torah – the path of tzedek – we will become a social model of tzedek which will inspire the nations to emulate our example. We will achieve this goal in the messianic age, and the following prophecy will then be fulfilled:
“Thus said Hashem of the hosts of creation, God of Israel: People will again say this thing in the land of Judah and its cities, when I return their captivity: ‘May Hashem bless you, O Abode of Tzedek, O Sacred Mountain!’ ” (Jeremiah 31:22)
In this age of the final redemption, the gerei tzedek who joined our people through choosing the Torah’s path of tzedek will be brought to the sacred mountain which serves as the abode of tzedek. As Hashem proclaimed in the following promise regarding these gerei tzedek: “I will bring them to My sacred mountain” (Isaiah 56:6,7).
May we all meet at the sacred mountain – the abode of tzedek!
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen