Eikev: On honoring those who have joined our people


Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

Isaiah 49:14-51:3

An outsider waited uncomfortably for his turn to meet with a Chassidic rebbe. He was not used to visiting rebbes, but sometimes you try everything. He passed the time observing his fellow visitors: some, by their dress, followers of the rebbe; others not; all displaying impatience as they waited.

Every few minutes, the rebbe's attendant appeared, ushering out a visitor after each audience, adding the names of newcomers to the bottom of his list and consulting the list to usher the next visitor in. More people kept coming.

Again the attendant appeared. This time, he greeted one of the new people, a young Chassidic man, and sent him directly in to meet with the rebbe. The young man walked right in. The outsider felt overcome with curiosity. What was special about that young man? The outsider, though he had his own troubles, determined that when his chance came, he would ask about the young man.

When he did, the rebbe explained: "It says in the Torah: `You shall love the stranger' (Deut. 10:19). If someone converts to Judaism, if a stranger joins our people, I have to do something to show love for him. But all day long I only listen to people's problems, and sometimes give advice. What do I have to offer this young man? Only this: I have instructed my attendant that this man never has to wait to see me."

The rebbe understood that he had to do more than feel love, he had to demonstrate it by giving the man some form of preference. Indeed, the Hebrew word for "to love" sometimes means "to prefer" (see Deut. 21:15). Classical legal texts focus on prohibiting mistreatment of the convert: Whoever cheats, insults, embarrasses, disparages or fails to defend another transgresses an additional prohibition if he victimizes a convert.

But Maimonides, in his famous Responsum to Ovadiah the Convert (No. 448), focuses on the emotion: "Know that the obligation that the Torah puts on us with respect to converts is very great. For a father and for a mother, we are commanded to have honor and respect; for prophets, we are commanded to listen to them; and it is possible for a person to honor, respect and listen to someone whom he does not love. Concerning converts, He has commanded us great love, which is given to the heart: `You shall love the stranger' (Deut. 10:19), just as He has commanded us to love His name, `You shall love the Lord your God' (Deut. 11:1)."

The Torah commands love for the convert, perhaps honoring one who renounces a former life to join the Jewish people and to observe our religion. The 13th-century Sefer HaHinnukh, the Book of Education, argues that Jews ought to act generously "to one who abandons his people and his whole family, his mother's house and his father's house, to find refuge under the wings of another people," acting out of love for truth (Commandment No. 431).

Thus far, I have traced the legal tradition that interprets the word "stranger" to mean a convert to Judaism. Sefer HaHinnukh reminds us that the word can have a more general sense, advising: "We should learn from this dear commandment to have compassion for a person away from his native city and the birthplace of his ancestors, and we shall not mistreat him in any way when we find him alone, far from those who would help him…for the Torah has commanded us to have compassion on all who need help."

While the legal tradition emphasizes how we should treat those who join our people, moralists draw another conclusion from this verse. Loving the convert, after all, is loving someone who has become like us. But the biblical verse seems to suggest that we have obligations to love even the stranger who remains outside our community. Although this stranger may behave differently from us and hold different values, he or she remains a creature of the One who created us all.