In the previous letter, I discussed Torah teachings which reveal that the story of our people represents the story of humanity and its diverse peoples. These peoples can therefore derive inspiration and hope from our story. I also suggested that the converts from all the peoples that join our people enhance our ability to serve as a universal model of the human story.
Hashem promised Abraham, our father, that a great nation will emerge from him and that this nation will become a source of blessing for “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). In addition, we have a tradition that Hashem also promised Abraham that this chosen nation will include converts from all the families of the earth! In this letter, I will begin to discuss this Divine promise regarding the converts:
Within the Book of Genesis, we find the term, “the families of the earth” – a reference to the peoples of the earth. This term is mentioned in the following message that Hashem conveyed to our father, Abraham, when he living in Haran:
“Go to yourself, from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing! I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you I will curse; and through you, all the families of the earth will be blessed!” (Genesis 12:1-3).
The promise regarding the emergence of a great nation that will become a source of blessing to others was also given to Abraham’s son, Isaac (ibid 26:4), and to Isaac’s son, Jacob (ibid 28:15). Jacob – who was also given the name “Israel” (Genesis 35:10) – had 12 sons who became the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. These tribes later became known as, Am Yisrael – the People of Israel.
As we know, a Torah verse can have several levels of meaning. In this spirit, I would like to discuss with you another interpretation of the statement, “through you, all the families of the earth will be blessed”:
The Hebrew word for “will be blessed” is v'nivrichu. This word can also mean “to be grafted on” or “to join”; thus, the Talmud interprets this statement in the following manner: “All the families of the earth will join you” (Yevamos 63a).
They will join the People of Israel – the people that will emerge from Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. In what way will the families of the earth join the People of Israel? The Talmud explains that this Divine promise is referring to converts from all the peoples that will join the People of Israel (ibid). As an example, the Talmud cites the following teaching of Rabbi Elazar regarding two righteous converts in the biblical period:
“What is the meaning of ‘all the families of the earth will join you’? The Holy One, Blessed be He, is saying to Abraham: ‘I have two good grafts to graft on to you – Ruth the Moabite (the great grandmother of King David) and Na’amah the Ammonite (a wife of King Solomon and mother of King Rehoboam).’ ”
The Torah describes how humanity evolved into diverse peoples (Genesis 10:1-32). As we shall discuss, the Torah has references to converts from these diverse peoples who will join our people; thus, our people will be universal not only in its purpose, but in its very composition. When I was living in the United States, I began to discuss this general insight with others (although I was not yet aware of the specific commentary of the Talmud cited above). The idea that we absorb converts led me to think about the following Divine message to our people at Mount Sinai:
“And now, if you will earnestly hearken to My voice and keep My covenant, you will be a treasure to Me from all the peoples, because all the earth is Mine.” (Exodus 19:5).
I thought about another possible way of interpreting the words, “a treasure from all the peoples.” I realized that when the word “from” is used in speech or writing, it can have the following two definitions:
1. The word “from” can refer to a select choosing which causes a separation. For example, someone may say, “I chose this coat from all the coats that were in the store.”
2. The word “from” can also refer to an “inclusive” choosing. For example, someone may say, “I made the salad from all the vegetables that were in the refrigerator.”
If we understand the word “from” as an inclusive choosing, then the phrase, “a treasure from all the peoples,” is indicating that we are to become a “treasure” that will include representatives from all the peoples of the earth. The classic example, I thought to myself, are the converts from all the peoples that join us through accepting the covenant of the Torah. The above Divine message is therefore revealing that when we ourselves fulfill the covenant of the Torah, we become a “treasure” that will attract converts from all the peoples.
After I moved to Jerusalem, I found support for this interpretation in the commentary of the Netziv, a leading sage of the late 19th century who was the head of the famous Volozin Yeshiva. His talks on the weekly Torah portion were later published in a work titled, He’emak Davar. In his commentary on the words, “you will be a treasure to Me from all the peoples” (Exodus 19:5), he explains that Hashem is telling us that we are to be a treasure that will absorb converts from all the peoples of the earth. He also discusses this idea in his commentary on the following statement of Moshe Rebbeinu – Moses, our teacher:
“Hashem, your God, has chosen you to be for Him a ‘treasure people’ from all the peoples that are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
In his explanation of the phrase, “from all the peoples,” The Netzv writes:
“Within Israel will be gathered all the gerei tzedek (converts for righteousness) that are found among all the peoples, and they will no longer serve Hashem by themselves; rather, they will be included within Israel, the people of Hashem.”
I will conclude this letter with a teaching about converts and the mission of our people. The Prophet Isaiah told our people in the Name of Hashem that our mission is to develop in Zion a model society which can serve as “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). I would like to suggest that having converts from all the peoples of the earth will enhance our ability to serve as a universal social model, for when the other peoples see our people with all the converts, they will be seeing themselves. The converts will therefore make it easier for the other peoples to identify with our people and thereby learn from our spiritual example. In this way, the following Divine promise to the people of Zion will be fulfilled: “nations will walk by your light” (Isaiah 60:3).
Shalom – for Israel and the World,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen