One of the more useful tools in a rabbi’s toolbox, I have found, is the ability to derive a general principle or rule from a particular and specific situation (similar to induction in Aristotelian logic). The classical commentaries explain the various events and laws in the Torah, for example, but they don’t typically spell out the moral, ethical and theological messages that are found throughout the Torah. When writing about the Mitzvah of loving converts to Judaism, one medieval commentator serves as a noteworthy exception and does explain this mitzvah’s lesson.
Before addressing the more general message of the Mitzvah of loving converts, a basic issue must be resolved. This Mitzvah appears to be nebulous. The Torah simply states: “You shall love the convert” (Devarim 10:19). How exactly is it fulfilled? Does one have to cultivate a feeling or an attitude about converts or does one have to actually do something that demonstrates love? Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman (born 1912), a prominent Israeli Rosh Yeshiva and author, points out that the meaning of this mitzvah alluded to in passing in a prior verse. The earlier verse says that the Almighty himself “loves the convert, and gives him substance and his other needs” (ibid 10:18). By applying the message of that verse to our commandment, it is clear that the Mitzvah of loving converts does not merely direct us to have a particular state of mind. We have to physically show the convert that we love and accept him with our actions as well. The Sefer ha-Chinuch (Hebrew: “Book of Education”), a work which systematically discusses the 613 commandments of the Torah that was published anonymously in 13th century Spain, provides more details. It explains that if someone makes a convert feel bad, doesn’t save them from personal or financial damage, or treats them disrespectfully because they have no support network in the Jewish community, they have violated this commandment and should be forewarned that their punishment will be severe. In summary, on a basic level, this Mitzvah includes both negative and positive aspects: ways we must not treat a convert and ways that we must treat him or her.
The author of Sefer ha-Chinuch then proceeds to expand the idea that underlies the Mitzvah of loving a convert into a universal principle. He writes: “We must learn from this precious Mitzvah, to act mercifully toward a person that is in a city that he is neither native to nor is it the place of his ancestors – instead of avoiding a person that is awkwardly alone and without any support. This is a theme that we find in the Torah: we are commanded to treat anyone that needs assistance mercifully.” The Sefer ha-Chinuch warns us not to think small, and not to be limited by the particular details of this Mitzvah. The importance of treating converts properly is certainly a critical priority that cannot be neglected in any way. At the same time, however, if we fail to think big – if we fail to open the Mitzvah up into a greater, more encompassing principle, then we will have missed its central point.
During the time I lived in Israel, I relocated to a new area and began attending a new shul. The first time I entered, I didn’t know anyone at all in the congregation. But I will never forget the first person that said hello to me. There was one gentleman that would greet me with a “Shabbat Shalom” and a warm handshake every time I would enter. He then offered to find me an available seat and handed me a Siddur. I soon noticed that he wasn’t singling me out but that he actually did this to all of the many guests that would happen to arrive at that shul.
We are in so many situations in which we are the seasoned veterans and someone else is the new guy. We may have a new neighbor, a new student, or a new colleague. These situations can potentially turn into many opportunities to live up to the message of loving the convert. All we have to do is open up our minds and THINK BIG!