Thursday, December 28, 2006

Va-Yiggash: The family reunites!

BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELTS! It's gonna be a wild ride on this one. In the future my intent is to look more at commentaries outside the brief bits in Etz Chayim, to include Rashi and other classic Hasidic texts. Why? Because I can :)

+ So I got all riled during my Torah study. Not particularly with the parsha itself, but because of some questions it drudged up in my mind regarding words. The importance of words. How we use them, what they mean and how we attach ourselves to them and often misinterpret them.

The word I'm referring to is ger. Ger (גר) translates in biblical Hebrew as "stranger," and as we know it is used to describe a convert to Judaism, although sometimes converts are known as ger tzadik, which translates at the elementary level as "righteous stranger." However, most will tell you that ger tzadik means "righteous proselyte" or "righteous convert" ... Also noteworthy is that the word derives from gar, meaning "to dwell."

In the Torah, the word appears in many forms in many contexts. In this week's parshah, the brothers say to Par'oh, "We have come ... to sojourn in this land." Sojourn being gimel-surek-resh, or gur, and being a temporary stay. Avram says in Genesis that he is a stranger coming to live among the people. At that point, of course, Judaism doesn't exist. Avram merely says that he is a ger toshav -- to very contradictory words, with toshav meaning resident. In essence, Avram says he is both a stranger and a resident.

After searching for something, anything, on the distinction of ger as convert/proselyte/stranger, I came up with little. But then I found which had some interesting insight, particularly on the introduction of the idea from parsha Chayyai Sarah. It has also helped me come to a conclusion regarding the word ger, and how we use it.

The ger is a stranger in a land not their own. The person who is toshav is a resident of the land. And thus we have this:
The term ger has come to refer someone who is the process of converting to Judaism. They are not yet Jewish but are living within the Jewish community. They are effectively living a Jewish life but they have not yet become fully Jewish. Standing at the threshhold of Judaism, their status is neither Jew but no longer non-Jew. Religiously, they are betwixt and between. (emphasis my own)
When one stands before the bet din, immerses in the mikvah and goes about the other devotions to becoming a Jew, one steps up from being a ger and becomes toshav.

Right? Abraham refers to himself as a ger toshav, right? Well, the roblem is that most in Israel would refer to a gentile living in the land as a "ger toshav." Which sort of complicates the argument. Also complicating the argument is the many references to "ger" in the Torah, such as those in which we are ordered to treat the "ger" in our midst with respect and justness. Thus in those instances, the ger is not a convert, but merely a stranger.

So how does the word get from point A to point B? What should a convert be called? The most important thing we are told when converting is that once you convert, it is as if you were never not a Jew. That is, despite how beautiful the documentation of your conversion is, you shouldn't display it. Of course, converting can never be forgotten. Someone will ask you or you'll say something and someone might suspect it and you feel the need to clear the air. But I don't think ger is a good word for what I am. I am a Jew by all accounts (*cough* ... let's not debate that here, this is a different boat). Yet there still must be a word for the community to refer to me, no?

Another argument:
In rabbinic literature we have the term ger tsedek, the "just ger," to distinguish the sincere convert not only from the ger toshav, the "resident ger" who does not convert . . . in the heyday of the Roman Empire — in which, before the establishment of Christianity as the state religion, conversion to Judaism was widespread — we find yet another distinction between the true ger or ger tsedek (Latin proselytus or Greek proselutos), and the yerei-elohim or "God-fearer" (Latin metuens and Greek phoboumenos). The latter category consisted of individuals, perhaps comparable to some converts to Reform Judaism today, who identified with Jewish monotheism and its practice without committing themselves to a strict observance of the 613 commandments of Jewish tradition.
And further:
The ger toshav was not a convert. He was, according to the rabbis, a gentile who lived among the Jewish people, happy to be part of the Jewish world and supportive of the religious and social frames of Jewish life. He could eat tref (nonkosher) but was not permitted to publicly worship other gods, and if he was circumcised, he could partake of the Passover sacrifice. He was a lover of the Jewish people, though not a Jew himself.
Interestingly, many refer to the nonJewish spouse in an intermarried situation as a ger toshav.

In essence, I'm walking myself in circles here. I'm curious for opinions on the word, it's meaning meanings and forms, and whether you think it's an appropriate term for he or she who has become -- by all means -- Jewish. I might have to have a sit down with Rashi or some commentaries on this one.

+ Moving on in the parsha, though ... I'm intrigued by Serach (different than Sarah, which ends in a he) the supposed daughter of Asher, son of Jacob. (Gen. 46:17) She is mentioned in the counting of Jacob's family that enter the land of Egypt, and is mentioned elsewhere in the Torah, too. She's found her way into oodles of legends and some midrashim tell of her breaking the news to Jacob that Joseph was still alive. In return, it is said, Jacob blesses her by saying that she should be blessed for all her life and never die. The story goes that she was one of the few who were allowed to enter Heaven while alive (the others were Enoch and Elijah). For a midrashim on Serach, look here.

+ I love the debate between Rashi and the Ramban in Gen. 45:29 over who wept: Joseph or Jacob? The text says, "Joseph ... went to Goshen to meet his father Israel; he presented himself to him and, embracing him around the neck, he wept on his neck a good while." Rashi says Joseph wept. Ramban says Jacob wept. Now, if you follow the rules of sentence structure, it's clear that Joseph was the one weeping. Joseph ... presented himself to Israel ... embracing Israel around the neck ... Joseph wept on Israel's neck. I understand where the Ramban is coming from here ... perhaps Jacob does have more of a reason to be incredibly weepy. At the same time, Joseph has been living as a stranger in a strange land without his family. Jacob, while without his prized youngest son, has been living among his family and his many relatives over the years. I'd say Joseph, while being a top dog in Egypt and having so much power, has had it worse. Thus, I side with Rashi on this one. (EDITED: Thanks W.J.) To read more on the debate, click here.

+ The Torah commentary in Etz Chayim likens the brothers ignoring Joseph's wishes that they lie about their occupations to what it is to be the Jewish Diaspora. I think this is pretty interesting. Joseph asks his brothers to say they're livestock breeders, as shepherds are the lowest rung on the ladder of respectable professions. Joseph, raised in a foreign land, is, well, self-conscious about how they'll be viewed, so he tries to get them to hide part of who they are. The brothers, confident and raised in their own land, tell Par'oh that they are in fact shepherds, much to Joseph's dismay. The commentary suggests that this passage reflects "the healthy self-esteem of a people raised in their own land, in contrast to the concern of Diaspora Jews as to what their neighbors think of them."

Is it true? I've lived in the United States my entire life, yet I will admit to feeling as a stranger even at the small utterance of "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Easter" or "did you taste the shrimp!? it's great!" I've never been deeply concerned about what those around me think, but I can understand Joseph's need to hide that part of who he is (that is, that he, too, is part of a shepherd's household).

Additionally, in the commentary it says, "Jewish law and custom legitimates adjusting our behavior ' for the sake of ways of peace' (mi-p'nei darkhei shalom), furthering good relations with those around us by avoiding giving offense to their values and sensibilities." This suggests that Joseph may not have been being self-conscious, but rather that he was concerned about the customs and such of the Egyptians. At the same time, I wonder why this rule isn't applied to more aspects of our Jewishness.