Proper Treatment of the Convert
The Torah describes for us in detail the visit of Yitro to the encampment of
the Jewish people in the desert of Sinai. It also details for us the advice
given to Moshe by Yitro as how to organize the justice system of the Jewish
Though there is a divergence of view among the rabbinic scholars as to
whether Yitro came before or after the revelation and the granting of the
Torah at Mount Sinai, there is general agreement that Yitro remains the
template and role model for converts to Judaism.
Part of the reason is not only Yitro’s sincerity in joining the Jewish
people and his abandonment of the pagan gods that he had worshipped earlier
in his life but in his willingness to give advice and counsel for the
benefit of the administration of justice in his newly adopted society.
Many times a new convert is most hesitant to give advice or counsel to the
Jewish society. After all, the word “ger”- convert - in Hebrew, has the
connotation of being a stranger, an outsider, someone who is only a
sojourner and not yet necessarily a full fledged citizen. Therefore it is
most understandable that such a person may feel somewhat reticent at giving
suggestions and advice to those who have been Jews for generations and since
Yitro’s boldness in asserting himself immediately into advising and
improving Jewish society is a testimony to his comfort level, sincerity and
commitment regarding the Jewish people and its Torah values and strictures.
That is why he is given so much respect and prominence in the Torah of the
Converts bring with them a different range of experience and mindset to
Jewish life than do generational and born Jews raised exclusively in a
Jewish society. In Yiddish there is a famous phrase that “a guest for a
while sees for a mile.” Jewish society always needs constant revitalization
and freshness. Our Torah is eternal and ageless but the tactics for
promoting and teaching it vary from time to time and from locality to locality.
Many times it is the newcomer, the former stranger that has newly entered
the fold of Judaism and Jewish society that provides that new spark of
energy and innovativeness that powers Torah Judaism forward even more. It is
no coincidence that the Gaon of Vilna is buried next to the grave of the Ger
Tzedek – the righteous convert to Judaism in eighteenth century Vilna.
The Gaon was an innovator, a departure from the other scholars of his time
and even from many of those who preceded him. Converts on the whole – those
who are sincerely attracted to Judaism and not influenced by other factors
or are converted by ersatz methods and insincere and non-observant courts –
are an inspiration to Jewish society and a prod for further progress and
This is also an important lesson that we can glean from the events described
in this week’s parsha. Proper treatment of the convert is mentioned thirty
six times in the Torah – more than any other commandment or value. We should
take heed of this and assess the new convert correctly and not condescendingly.
Rabbi Berel Wein