According to our tradition, the following verse is the first verse that each Jewish child learns as soon as he or she begins to speak:
“The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the heritage of the Congregation of Jacob (Deuteronomy 33:4).”
In this verse, our people are not referred to as the Children of Israel, but as, “the Congregation of Jacob.” Our sages say that this term alludes to the following idea: The entire Torah is not just the heritage of those of our people whose ancestors received the Torah at Mount Sinai; it is also the heritage of the converts who join our people in each generation through accepting the responsibility to fulfill the mitzvos of the Torah. A midrash is a rabbinic teaching, story, or parable which reveals a deeper meaning of a biblical text, and the sages elaborate on this teaching about converts in the following midrash:
One should not say to the descendants of converts: “I am a child of the Torah, and the Torah was given to me and my ancestors; you and your ancestors, however, are not the children of the Torah, as your ancestors were converts.” This is because it is written: “The Torah that Moshe commanded us is a heritage of the Congregation of Jacob”; this includes all who “congregate” unto Jacob. (Midrash Tanchuma, Exodus, Va'Yakhel 8)
The Torah is the heritage of all who join the Congregation of Jacob; thus, converts are also the children of the Torah. There are stories about converts within our Sacred Scriptures which remind us of this truth. For example, the parsha – Torah portion – which describes the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai opens with the story of how Jethro, a priest of Midian who became the father-in-law of Moshe, joined our people at Mount Sinai. The opening verse of the parsha states:
Jethro, priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moshe, heard all that God did to Moshe and Israel, His people – that Hashem took Israel out of Egypt.” (Exodus 18:1)
The commentator, Rashi, explains that he had seven names, including “Jethro” – the name which was given to him, “when he converted and fulfilled the mitzvos.”
A few verses later, the parsha states:
“Jethro, the father-in-law of Moshe, came to Moshe with his sons and wife, to the wilderness where he was encamped, by the Mountain of God.” (18:5)
Rashi, in his commentary on this verse, writes:
“We, too, know that they were in the wilderness (and it would appear that the Torah would not have to tell us this obvious fact). But in mentioning this, the verse spoke in praise of Jethro, for he was living in a place of high honor in the world, yet his heart moved him to go out to the wilderness, a place of desolation, in order to hear words of Torah.” (Rashi’s commentary is based on the commentary of the midrashic work, Mechilta).
It is therefore significant that the parsha which describes the giving of the Torah opens with the story of Jethro’s journey to Mount Sinai, as it serves as a reminder that the Torah is also the heritage of converts.
The Festival of Shavuos commemorates the giving of the Torah, and on Shavuos, we chant the Book of Ruth – the story of the convert from Moab who moved to the Promised Land and became the great-grandmother of King David and the ancestor of the future Messiah. The fact that we read the story of this convert on the sacred festival which celebrates the giving of the Torah serves as another reminder that the Torah is the heritage of converts.
Today, there are many Jews who have little or no knowledge of the Torah – the heritage of the Congregation of Jacob. Every convert who accepts the path of the Torah serves as a reminder to all Jews that we have this deep spiritual heritage, and as we shall discuss in this series, converts have served as teachers and models that have inspired other Jews to rediscover their heritage. And through rediscovering this heritage, they rediscover the path which will lead us into the messianic age, when “Torah will go forth from Zion, and the Word of Hashem from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3).
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Insights and Comments:
1. Two books within our Sacred Scriptures are named after converts: the Book of Ovadiah, and the Book of Ruth. The Talmud cites the tradition that Ovadiah, the Prophet, was a convert from Edom (Sanhedrin 39b).
2. The Festival of Shavuos begins this year on Thursday evening, May 28th. One of the ways in which we can prepare for the Festival of Shavuos is to begin to read and study the Book of Ruth. The following recommended books have commentaries which can give us a deeper understanding of Ruth’s journey – a journey of great significance to Israel and the nations:
A. “The Book of Ruth” – A translation with a commentary drawn from the Talmud, Midrash, and other rabbinic sources. It is published by ArtScroll: www.artscroll.com . The hardcover edition is available, but the paperback edition is temporarily out of print. There is also a version for children titled: “The ArtScroll’s Children’s Book of Ruth.”
B. “Ruth – The Scroll of Kindness” by Rabbi Yosef Ze'ev Lipowitz – A commentary based on teachings of our sages which explore a major theme of the Book of Ruth: the redemptive power of loving-kindness. It was published by Feldheim, but it is no longer listed on their website. Copies of this moving and inspiring book should still be available at some bookstores and outlets.
3. In order to receive the Torah, Ruth was willing to endure suffering, and our sages say that this willingness to endure suffering for the sake of the Torah can serve as a model for all of us, which is why we read the Book of Ruth on Shavous. (See the opening section of Midrash Yalkut Shimoni on the Book of Ruth.)
This teaching of our sages is discussed in the book, “Ruth – the Scroll of Kindness,” and the author, Rabbi Yosef Ze'ev Lipowitz adds:
“The Megillah (Scroll) teaches us that the greatest accomplishments sprout from suffering and oppression. It is worth every Jew’s while to examine the story of the Megillah and Ruth’s way of life, in order to learn from her fate about the good end that awaits the Jewish people in the days to come.”
4. The study of Torah enables us to rise above our suffering, as King David, the great-grandson of Ruth, proclaimed:
“Had your Torah not been my joyful preoccupation, I would have perished in my affliction” (Psalm 119:92).
In this spirit, many people sing the following song on Simchas Torah and Shavuos:
“When the People of Israel sit and occupy themselves with the joy of the Torah, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, says to His inner chamber: ‘See My beloved children, who forget about their sorrows and who occupy themselves with My delight!’ ”
There is a tradition within the yeshiva world that the words of the above song – which express kabbalistic teachings – were written by the Vilna Gaon, a leading sage of the 18th century. An mp3 recording of this song was sent to those who signed up for our music list last year. New members of the music list or anyone else who would like to receive this recording can contact me. On this recording, I chant the words without the accompaniment of musical instruments.
Most of the previous letters in this series appear in the archive on our website.