Loving the Stranger
Parshat Naso continues the discussion of community, stating rules for living together and learning to develop trust among people. One of verses describes what to do if someone commits a crime against God. The verse begins, "When a man or a woman..." Interestingly, the Midrash focuses on just the words "man or a
woman" and uses these words to explain how one deals with a "man or a woman" who converts to Judaism.
5 And YHWH spoke to Moses saying,
6 Speak unto the children of Israel: When a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit, to commit a trespass against the Lord...
Here is how Midrash Rabba interpreted the verse:
Midrash Rabba 8:2
A man or a woman, etc. This bears on the scriptural text, "YHWH loves the righteous; YHWH preserves the stranger" (Psalms 146:8-9).... The Holy One Blessed Be God greatly loves converts (can also be translated as "strangers"). To what may this be compared? To a king who had a flock which used to go out to the field and come in at evening. So it was each day. Once a stag came in with the flock. He associated with the goats and grazed with them. When the flock came in to the fold he came in with them; when they went out to graze he went out with them. The king was told: "A certain stag has joined the flock and is grazing with them every day. He goes out with them and comes in with them." The king felt affection for him. When he went out into the field the king gave orders: "Let him have good pasture, such as he likes; no man shall beat him; be careful with him!" When he came in with the flock also the king would tell them, "Give him to drink"; and he loved him very much. The servants said to him: 'Sovereign! You possess so many he-goats, you possess so many lambs, you possess so many kids, and you never caution us about them; yet you give us instructions every day about this stag!" Said the king to them: "The flock have no choice; whether they want or not, it is their nature to graze in the field all day and to come in at evening to sleep in the fold. The stags, however, sleep in the wilderness. It is not in their nature to come into places inhabited by man. Shall we then not account it as a merit to this one which has left behind the whole of the broad, vast wilderness, the abode of all the beasts, and has come to stay in the courtyard?" In like manner, ought we not to be grateful to the convert who has left behind him his family and his father's house, ayee, has left behind his people and all the other peoples of the world, and has chosen to come to us? Accordingly, God has provided him with special protection, for God exhorted Israel that they shall be very careful in relation to the converts so as not to do them harm: and so indeed it says, "Love ye therefore the convert" (Deut. 10:19). And "You shall not oppress a stranger" (Exodus 23:9 and Lev. 19:33).
Your Midrash Rabba Navigator
1. Why does the king take special care of the stag among goats?
2. Do you agree with the king's reasoning that the rest of the flock (i.e. the Jews) have no choice about their situation, and that the stag (i.e. the convert) has made a choice?
3. Is it necessary for a convert to leave all else behind him in order to come to Judaism? How does one then relate to his family of origin?
4. Is it the case today that the Jewish people take special care of those who convert to Judaism?
In every community there are those who feel very comfortable and are very much a part of the group. Also in every community are those who come alone, without family, seeking to find comfort and joy in the synagogue, the community, the people. Often it feels much easier for us to stay comfortably among the friends we already know. It takes courage and generosity to reach out to the stranger, the newcomer to our groups, our synagogues, and our people. And yet the act of kindness toward a stranger is a value we hold strongly in the Jewish tradition. Only in our own efforts of kindness can we fulfill God's promise to providespecial protection to the stranger in our fields.
Prepared by Rabbi Andrea Lerner, Midwest Director of Hillel's Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, University of Wisconsin, Madison.