The Hebrew term for a convert is ger tzedek – a convert for righteousness. In a future letter, I hope to discuss why the convert is associated with righteousness. The literal meaning of ger, however, is “stranger” – a term which can refer to a new arrival in a community. In this letter, I shall begin to discuss a deeper and complimentary reason why a convert is referred to as a ger – stranger.
In order to understand the deeper significance of the term ger, we need to first understand the following prayer of King David, where he refers to himself as a ger – stranger:
“I am a ger upon earth; hide not Your mitzvos from me.” (Psalm 119:19)
In the above verse, David is expressing the yearning of his soul. The soul is a spiritual entity – a spark of the Divine essence. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch refers to this sacred quality of the soul in the following excerpt from his commentary on our daily morning prayer, “The Soul that You gave me is Pure”:
“God, the One, pure and holy Being is the soul’s Creator, and He has breathed that soul into us as part of His own Divine essence.” (The Hirsch Siddur – Prayerbook)
The spiritual soul is placed within a physical body on a physical earth. It is therefore not surprising that those who are aware of their spiritual souls may initially feel like gerim – strangers – on this earth. Our Creator, however, has given us through the Torah a holistic path of mitzvos – Divine mandates – which enable us to sanctify every aspect of our physical existence on this earth. For example, we have mitzvos which sanctify the way we eat, the way we have sexual relations, the way we work the earth, and the way we engage in commerce. Through this holistic path of mitzvos, the physical become spiritual through being consecrated for a higher Divine purpose; thus, our souls can feel more at home on earth. This is why David prayed, “I am a stranger upon earth; hide not Your mitzvos from me.”
The convert has a very sensitive soul, and like David, the convert feels like a stranger upon earth. The convert is therefore attracted to the mitzvos of the Torah path which sanctify every aspect of earthly existence, for like David, the convert seeks to feel more at home on earth.
David’s prayer led me to another level of understanding as to why Hashem stresses that we should love the ger who joins us in our land, because we were gerim in the land of Egypt. For example, Hashem proclaimed to us:
“When a ger dwells among you in your land, do not harass him. The ger who dwells with you shall be like a native among you, and you shall love him like yourself, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt – I am Hashem your God.” (Leviticus 19:33, 34)
“For you were gerim in the land of Egypt.” – According to our tradition, we were also “strangers” in Egypt in the spiritual sense, for Egypt was a decadent society where most people were obsessed with lusts for the physical pleasures of this world. This is why before Hashem revealed to us the mitzvos regarding the sanctification of our sexual behavior, Hashem stated: “Like the practice of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled do not do” (Leviticus 18:3). The classical commentator, Rashi, cites the tradition that the practices of the Egyptians were “degenerate”; moreover, Rashi also cites the tradition that the place where Israel dwelled (the Goshen region of Egypt) “was the most degenerate of all.”
When we were in Egypt, we had not yet received the Torah and its path of mitzvos; moreover, we were living in a decadent society where people idolized and worshiped the physical forces within themselves and the earth. Despite this negative influence, we did not totally assimilate, as the Torah states that we became a “nation” within Egypt (Deuteronomy 26:5). The Passover Haggadah cites this source, and it comments:
“This teaches that the People of Israel were distinctive there.”
We still remembered that we are the children of the righteous patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as the children of the righteous matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Despite our great suffering, we preserved the teachings they taught us about the spiritual and altruistic purpose of the soul on this earth. We therefore still felt a connection to our spiritual souls, and this connection caused us to feel like “strangers” in Egypt.
The Hebrew name for Egypt is Mitzrayim. The root meaning of this term is metzar – a word which connotes the distress caused by confinement. We felt confined living in a land where most people had forgotten about the true purpose of the human soul on earth, and this caused us to feel like “strangers” in this land.
The memory of our being “strangers” in this situation is to inspire us to have empathy for the gerim whose sensitive souls cause them to feel like strangers on earth, for human society on earth can become Mitzrayim – a place of distressing confinement – when most of its members are not aware of their true purpose on earth. The Compassionate and Life-Giving One therefore calls upon us to have special love for the converts, for they have the courage to join our small and persecuted people, in order to follow the holistic path of the Torah which enables us to fulfill the spiritual and altruistic purpose of our souls on this earth.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was a leading sage and biblical commentator of the 19th century, and he stressed in his writings that the goal of the Torah’s path of mitzvos is the sanctification of our life on earth. He elaborates on this idea in his noted work, Horeb, which discusses the various mitzvos of the Torah, and how they enable us to achieve this goal. The late Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld, a member of the London Rabbinical Court, and a renowned scholar and lawyer, wrote a profound introduction to Horeb, and in this introduction, he explains why Judaism is not a “religion” whose activities are primarily centered in a temple. He writes:
“To be religious in the Torah sense means to conceive of all human activities as falling within one scheme whose character is determined by the spiritual destiny of mankind. The farmer behind the plough, the workman on the bench, the merchant with his goods, and the scholar with his thoughts – they all have an equal opportunity of serving God as much as the priest in the Temple; perhaps even more so. In the conception of the Torah, only spiritual victory which is won in the arena of life is worth achieving; for the highest aim of Jewish teaching is the sanctification of life in all its aspects.” (Horeb is published by Judaica Press:www.judaicapress.com )
2. In a later segment of this series, I hope to discuss another kind of stranger who is known as a ger toshav – a resident stranger. This “stranger” is a Gentile who does not join our people through conversion; instead, he or she follows the universal code within the Torah which contains certain mitzvos which apply to all peoples. This Gentile is allowed to become a toshav – resident – in our land, together with all Israel and their converts, which is why this individual is called a ger toshav.
3. In the above letter, I mentioned the morning prayer, “The Soul that You gave me is Pure.” Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, a leading sage who headed the Chaim Berlin Yeshiva in Brooklyn, New York, composed a beautiful and meditative nigun (melody) for this ancient prayer. An mp3 recording of this nigun can be sent to you upon request. On this recording, I sing the nigun without the accompaniment of musical instruments.
Most of the previous letters in this series appear in the archive on our website.