Parshas Yisro (5771)
By Rabbi David Zauderer (Toronto, Canada)
Throughout our history there have been men and women who joined the Jewish people through conversion. Even before the Jewish people became a nation, the ‘First Couple’ of Judaism – Abraham and Sarah – were ‘converting’ tens of thousands of idol worshippers to the belief in One G-d and Ethical Monotheism.
One of the most famous Biblical converts was Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David, whose story and conversion is recorded in one of the twenty-four books of the Bible, the Book of Ruth.
Some of our greatest Sages, whose teachings are recorded throughout the Mishnah and the Talmud, were themselves converts or descendants of converts – including Onkelos, Shmaya and Avtalyon, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir etc. There have also been group conversions as well, such as that of King Bulan and the entire kingdom of the Khazars in the eighth or ninth century (you can read more about this amazing true story in The Jews of Khazaria: Second Edition by Kevin A. Brook, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
One of the most famous and fascinating righteous converts in the last 300 years was Abraham ben Abraham Potocki, the Polish count from a very aristocratic family, whose conversion to Judaism in the 1700’s shocked the Roman Catholic Church, and who was ultimately burnt at the stake when he refused to come back to his former religion (you can read this incredible story online at: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/112488/jewish/The-Ger-Tzedek-of-Wilno.htm)
And in modern times, tens of thousands of non-Jews of every religion, race and ethnicity have converted to Judaism, including such well-known ‘celebs’ as Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis Jr., Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Arnold, Connie Chung, Isla Fisher, and Ivanka Trump. There’s even talk that Leo DiCaprio might join the Tribe so that he can marry Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli … seems like ‘going Jewish’ is all the rage these days.
[Disclaimer: Conversion to Judaism is a very serious matter, and not everyone who ‘converts’ is necessarily sincere about his/her commitment to Judaism, as it is possible that the person has converted for ulterior motives. My inclusion of ‘celebs’ on the list of Jewish converts - who often go through conversion for all the wrong reasons and without sincere commitment - is not to be understood as ‘legitimizing’ their respective conversions.]
The fact that many non-Jews have decided to join the Jewish people over the centuries and millennia should not be surprising to us. Indeed, it is actually part of the Divine Plan. As is recorded in the Talmud in Pesachim 87b, Rabbi Elazar taught: The only reason that the Holy One, blessed is He, sent the Jewish people into exile among the nations is so that converts would join them, as it says, “I will plant them [the Jewish exiles] for Me in the earth [the land of the nations]” (Hosea 2:25). Does a man plant a se’ah of good seeds unless he intends to harvest many kur of grain? [So, too, if G-d plants the Jewish people among the nations, it is because He wants to get something very precious in return: converts who will come under the wings of the Divine Presence and join the Jewish people.]
If one were to ask you who was the first convert in the history of our people, what would you say?
I’ll give you a little hint …. this week’s Torah portion is named after him. That’s right - the very first person to become Jewish after Jewish history began at Mount Sinai was Yisro (Jethro), the father-in-law of Moses.
[I should mention that according to some medieval Bible commentators including Nachmanides, Yisro came to convert to Judaism before the Torah was given to the Jews at Mount Sinai – in which case, he would technically not have been the first Jewish convert after we became a nation. According to many other Bible commentators, however, Yisro came to join the Jewish people after they had already received the Torah at Mount Sinai.]
Rashi, in his commentary to the first verse in our Torah portion (Exodus 18:1), quotes a Midrash which teaches that Yisro actually had seven names – Re’uel, Yeser, Yisro, Chovav, Chever, Keini, and Putiel. In explaining the origin of Yisro’s many names, the Midrash tells us that after he converted to Judaism and accepted upon himself the 613 commandments of the Torah, a (Hebrew letter) vav was added on to his name Yeser, thus becoming Yisro.
The Mahara”l of Prague explains why the letter vav, and not any other Hebrew letter, was added to Yisro’s name after his conversion to Judaism. He writes that the gematria, or numerical value, of the name Yeser is 610, while the name Yisro (which contains the added letter vav which equals 6) has a numerical value of 616.
As a potential convert, Yisro actually needed to accept upon himself 616 commandments. This is because, in addition to accepting upon himself the 613 commandments that all other born Jews are duty-bound to observe, a convert has to perform 3 additional mitzvos in order to become Jewish – circumcision (for males), ritual immersion in a mikvah, and (in the times when he had a Temple) bringing a sacrificial offering to G-d.
Yeser therefore had a vav added to his name after he converted, bringing the total numerical value of his new name Yisro to 616, symbolizing the 616 commandments he now took upon himself in the process of becoming a Jew. The truth is – and this might shock some of you – that each and every Jew originally descends from converts. That’s right – you read that correctly – we all come from converts.
You see, the Scriptural source for the main requirements of Jewish conversion is the original conversion of the entire Jewish nation at Mount Sinai! Our ancestors ‘converted’ to the new religion of Judaism by taking an oath to accept upon themselves - and upon all future generations - to observe all the 613 commandments (they said “Na’aseh v’nishma – we will do and we will hear” – see Exodus 24:7), and they entered into the covenant through circumcision, ritual immersion, and offering sacrifices to G-d (see the Talmud in Kereisos 9a).
As Maimonides writes in his Mishneh Torah in the Laws of Forbidden Relationships Chapter 13 Laws 1-4: “The Israelites entered into the covenant with three things; circumcision, immersion, and sacrifices. Circumcision was performed in Egypt, as it is written 'and all uncircumcised (males) shall not eat of it (the paschal lamb).' Immersion (ritual purification) was performed in the desert before the giving of the Torah, as it is written 'and you shall sanctify yourselves today and tomorrow.' And at this time sacrifices were also brought ... So too for all generations, a gentile who wishes to enter into the covenant, to find shelter under the wings of the Shechina (Divine Presence) and to accept upon himself the yoke of Torah, requires circumcision, immersion and acceptance of a sacrifice (at the time of the Temple).”
This should give us a new perspective on the Torah’s commandment to “love the convert” (see, for example, the verse in Leviticus 19:34). We should respect and appreciate the convert who chooses to accept the Torah and join the Jewish people, just as we ourselves once did as we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai 3323 years ago and accepted upon ourselves the Torah and became the Jewish people.
We have a long-standing tradition that in the Messianic Era, many gentiles will come to recognize the uniqueness of the Jewish people and will feel compelled to convert to Judaism, as the prophet foretold, “I will then give all peoples a pure tongue, that they may call in the name of G-d, and all serve Him in one manner” (Zephania 3:9). (Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone will become Jewish … after all, someone’s got to pay retail!)
Once the Messiah has revealed himself, however, converts will no longer be accepted, as it will be impossible to tell if they are converting out of true conviction or merely because Judaism is the “in” religion and it’s fashionable to be Jewish. As the Talmud teaches in Avodah Zarah 3b: “In the Messianic Era, we [the Jewish people] will not accept converts. Similarly, they did not accept converts neither during the time of [King] David, nor during the time of [King] Solomon.”