Shabbat Message from Rabbi Bellows
The first shlish of this week’s Torah portion, Nasso, is Numbers 4:21-5:10.
When I was an undergrad, my Judaism became especially precious to me. I had grown up among many Jews, so when I attended a school with few Jews, I held on to that part of my identity with ferocity. My Jewishness had become sacred. One day, another student saw my yarmulke, my kippah, and said, “Oh, look! A fellow Yid!” I had never heard that term, and I was admittedly slightly insulted by it. I casually smiled, chuckled and walked away.
As we were the same major, we ended up seeing each other a lot. I learned his name was Chris and he was a graduate student. As he and I became friendly, I learned more about his story. There are not many people born Jewish with the name Chris, simply because the full name, Christopher, has the name “Christ” in it. It turns out that Chris had chosen Judaism and had gone through a conversion process with a Conservative rabbi, though when I had met him, he identified as an Orthodox Jew. Chris and I contributed to the local Hillel (Jewish Student Union), and we would gather on Saturday evenings to do Havdalah in one of our dorm rooms.
Throughout my life and rabbinic career, I have had the pleasure of knowing many people who have joined the Jewish People, and I have had the honor of bringing some through the process of becoming a Jew. Everyone I have met or worked with has brought a unique and important flavor to the Jewish people, ensuring our growth.
In this week’s Torah portion, Nasso, God tells us that if we have wronged our fellow human financially, we must make financial retribution and add further compensation above the principal. The ancient rabbis understood the victim in this passage to be someone who chose Judaism, as it says that such a sin would also be an affront to God. Why does that indicate a convert to Judaism? Because in ancient times a convert did not necessarily have a proper heir within the People of Israel, so to rob them further was a sin against God. Additionally, the rabbis say that if a convert witnessed such a sin committed by someone who was born Jewish, it would taint their view of the Jewish People.
Those who choose Judaism are usually meant to be treated as any other member of the People of Israel. For instance, they are not to be blamed or connected with what their ancestors did (See the Mishnah, Bava Metzia 4:10). Yet our tradition stresses that they are even to be exalted above the rest of Israel because, unlike those born Jewish, those who convert chose their Jewishness. They studied and strived to learn what it means to be Jewish (See Talmud, Kiddushin 70b).
Of course, we cannot talk about choosing Judaism without mentioning the first person in our tradition to do so, and that is Ruth. It is especially appropriate to mention Ruth since we just observed the festival of Shavuot, on which we read from the Book of Ruth. When her companion Naomi told her she should go her own way, Ruth replied, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
Ruth’s message here is an important one. She does not merely state that she will accept the faith of the Jewish people; rather, she says she will be one of the people. Likewise, someone who “chooses Judaism” or “converts to Judaism” truly becomes part of the people. Their journey is what they make it. Their theology and culture are to be their own, yet renewed and newly filtered through a Jewish lens.
We are who we are because of everyone who chooses to be one of us. Each member of the People of Israel improves our overall flavor. Each new idea, each new piece of culture, each new face enriches the Jewish people. I look forward to meeting more who joined the Jewish people throughout my rabbinate, and I look forward to bringing some of those people through the process.
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