Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Shemot, Rachav, and Jericho

I'm really disappointed in myself for forgetting one of the most important parshiyot in the narrative that is my life -- Shemot, last week's parshah.

Why is it so significant? Three years ago I completed my Orthodox conversion on January 1, and after I converted friends threw me a bit of a "congratulatory" Shabbat dinner in West Hartford. At that dinner, I gave a d'var Torah on Shemot. Oddly enough, this past week I was in Mitzpeh Yericho for Shabbat with Mr. T and his son staying with some very, very good friends, and only after I got home and pulled up this d'var Torah did I realize how even more appropriate the d'var really was.

It begins like this, addressing the fact that the verb tzade-pey-nun appears in this form only twice in the entire Tanakh.

In this week’s parshah, sh’mot, Moses is born during a dangerous time in which Pharaoh has forgotten Joseph and the Israelites. Moses’ mother, fearing for his life, hides him – specifically, the text says, “and she hid him” or (ותצפנהו) – which has an interesting parallel that I’d like to share with you. 
In the book of Joshua, there is an incident – a very important incident – in which Rachav (Rahab), a harlot living in Jericho, hides Joshua’s spies from certain death. In the incident, in Joshua 2, Rachav is said to hide the spies when the king comes looking for them. Specifically, it says (ותצפנו), or “and she hid the men.”
The d'var goes on to compare the experience of the Infant Moshe to the Infant Israel in Joshua, citing Rachav's direct quotation of Moshe in Deuteronomy 4:39. The d'var goes on to discuss converts, the power of the convert, and why HaShem holds the convert so close.

From Numbers Rabbah 8:2, the midrash says,

“Why does the Holy Blessed One love the righteous (referring to a discussion of converts being loved as the righteous)? Because they have neither inheritance nor family. Priests and Levites have an ancestral house, as it says, “House of Aaron, praise the Lord. House of Levi, praise the Lord” (Psalms 146:19). If someone wants to be a kohen or levite, one cannot because one’s father was not. But if someone wants to be righteous, even a non-Jew can, since that is not dependent on ancestry.”
The midrash continues with a parable about the stag that attaches itself to the king’s flock. Daily, the king instructs his shepherds to take care of the stag, and they ask the king why he cares so much about this one animal:

"The king responded, 'The other animals have no choice; whether they want or not, it is their nature to graze in the field all day and to come in to sleep in the fold. Stags, however, sleep in the wilderness. It is not in their nature to come into places inhabited by man. Is it not to a sign of this one's merit that he has left behind the whole of the wilderness to stay in our courtyard?' In like manner, ought we not to be grateful to the proselyte who has left behind his family and his relatives, his nation and all the other nations of the world, and has chosen to come to us?"
It's a beautiful sentiment. And it's one that so many Jews grow up with -- "love the ger" -- and one that so many people misunderstand or don't know how to properly put into place. It doesn't just mean "be nice," but so much more including "don't embarrass the convert" and "don't blow their cover" and "if you're hozer b'teshuva or ba'alei teshuva understand that the narratives are very different" and "hey converts don't bully other converts." The midrash spends a great deal of time elucidating the merits of converts like Ruth and Rachav, not to mention discussing just how precious they are in the eyes of HaShem.

So I'm a week late on the parshah, but that doesn't mean the message and lesson aren't incredibly valuable and worth a read and consideration.