Have You Embraced a Convert Today?
Converts personify a Judaism that is fresh and exciting. Does that make us jealous?
The Torah is full of many commandments, some listed once, others repeated frequently. Yet, there is one mitzvah mentioned as many as 46 times in the Torah, and that is the mitzvah to love the convert. Clearly, the Torah is emphatic that a newcomer to Judaism should receive treatment that goes above and beyond the average person.
What is so difficult about fulfilling this mitzvah that it is needed to be repeated so often? Furthermore, the Torah already commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and this includes converts who have become part of our nation. Why the need to list so many additional commandments related specifically to converts?
Our Sages share a parable that sheds light on how the Almighty views the convert: There once lived a powerful king who took great pride in his wealth. He had numerous homes, gardens, pastures and livestock. One day when he stood on a hillside admiring his flock of thousands of sheep, he noticed a single young deer among them. He called to his chief shepherd to inquire about it. The shepherd explained that during the last few weeks, wherever the sheep went, the deer followed. No matter the heat, cold or rain, the deer simply remained among the flock.
The shepherd then asked whether the deer should be removed from the flock. To which the king insisted that the deer be allowed to remain among the sheep. The shepherd pressed further and cautiously asked the king, “If you take such great pride in the perfection of your flock, why would you want a non-sheep among them?”
The king answered, “My flock is truly beautiful, however, they go where we tell them to. On a daily basis we herd them towards green pastures and fresh water to help them survive. They have no other options of where to go or how to live. However, this deer has the freedom to live anywhere and to run free in the wild, and still, it chooses to reside with my flock for it finds great value among them. For that reason, the deer is special to me in a way that is more meaningful than the sheep themselves. Not only is the deer so precious to me and should be allowed to remain among the sheep, but it should be given better protection, food, water, treatment, love and attention above the rest of my flock.” (Midrash Tehillim 146).
It is through this parable that we can appreciate how precious converts are in the eyes of God and why the Torah is so repetitive about treating the newcomer with heightened care. Furthermore, perhaps it can help us, the sheep, better understand why feelings of disdain may arise when looking at a convert - and help us overcome any negative feelings, so that we can properly embrace the convert as we should.
When some of us look at a convert, we feel jealous. We see a Judaism that is fresh and exciting and with envy, we may contrast it with our own Judaism, one that we have long since taken for granted.
Are we as committed and strong in our faith as they are?
When we look at a convert guilt may arise, for we know how far they have had to come, whereas many of us have grown complacent in our Judaism.
When we look at a convert we may feel insignificant as we step back and wonder whether we could have made the choices, sacrifices and transformations that they have made. This forces us to question and doubt if we are as committed and strong in our faith as they are.
When we look at a convert, deep in our hearts, we truly know how precious they are in God’s eyes, and perhaps we too long for the same connection and inspiration that they have fought to achieve.
Ultimately, the convert reminds us not only who we once were, as the Torah states, “Love the convert for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19), but of the types of Jews we truly wish to be. They remind us that it has been thousands of years since we stood at Sinai pledging to believe in God and accept the Torah – and we recall just how much we miss that feeling. For that reason, the Torah so frequently instructs us to look up to the convert, learn from them and shower them with love.
This applies not only following the excitement of their conversion, but even during the often long and difficult transformation process leading up to it. As Judaism is not learned from reading a book, but by living it – a convert cannot properly learn about Shabbat or prayer unless the community is willing to bring them in and help them through their journey. Remember, not only are they learning a new language, customs and way of living, but they are painfully detaching from their previous lives, habits and even relationships. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the Jewish community to fully receive and support the convert with love.
So next time you encounter a convert – someone who made the incredibly heroic life transformation that many of us could never even imagine doing - don’t take them for granted. Stop. Be in complete awe and embrace them.