A Holy Stranger with Open Arms

Alissa Thomas
April 29, 2013
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There is nothing like seeing my father dressed head to toe in all white.

His soul hearkens to the time of the Kabbalistic rabbis who, draped in white clothing, would sing Kabbalat Shabbat in the fields. I imagine my father in his Shabbat white watching the sun set with his arms spread like angels’ wings and his heart leaping out of his chest toward his Creator. It is quite a breathtaking sight.

My family takes the Kabbalistic practice of wearing white clothing on Shabbat and many chagim very seriously. Every family member has a section of his or her wardrobe for the special white pieces, including shoes. We appreciate the physical expression of spiritual openness and humility; but my father has always had a special relationship with this practice.

My father is a Jew by choice. He is a deeply spiritual man who has always been a seeker. Judaism is not only his home but also his intellectual, religious, and emotional source of truth and wisdom. He avidly reads and loves to discuss halacha, Jewish law, machshavah, Jewish thought, and all forms of torah with me. I was and am very proud of my father and have always known that his relationship with God and Judaism is about returning to his Source, uniting with his soul’s home and purpose.

With this in mind, I would like to explore my belief that gerim, converts to Judaism, have a soul connection or a calling that is incredibly holy and that reveals a crucial part of what it means to be Jewish in general.

In Parshat Bo, during God’s commandments about Pesach, we learn ‘Torat achat yihiyeh laezrach velager hagar betochechem,’ ‘One law there shall be for him who is homeborn and for the stranger who lives among you’ (Shemot 12:49). The rabbis traditionally understand the word ‘ger’ to mean convert, and Rashi explains that the verse equates Jews who are born Jews and Jews by choice not only in the observance of Pesach but ‘af leshaer mitzvot shebaTorah’, in all of the remainder of mitzvot in the Torah.

Throughout the Torah, God commands us over and over again not to oppress the ger, to love the ger, and to recognize that we are no different from the ger. In Parshat Mishpatim, God explicitly commands, ‘Veger lo tilchotz, veatem yadatem et nefesh hager, ki gerim hayitem, beeretz mitzrayim,’ ‘And a stranger you shall not oppress, for you know the soul of the stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt’ (Shemot 23:9).

We must make note of the nature of the word ‘ger’ here and how fascinating its rabbinic usage as ‘convert’ is in relation to this verse, since it implies that all of Israel were once ‘gerim’. We are especially aware this in the season of Pesach, since at our sedarim the communal retelling of our having been strangers in Egypt eventually leads to our peoplehood, our receiving of the Torah at Sinai, and our elevated relationship with God. But I would like to focus further on the middle of the verse, ‘for you know the soul of the stranger’. God underscores the value of empathy and the value of personalization when relating to the journey of another. We as Jews know very well what it is like not only to be strangers, or ‘the other’, but also to be on a journey from one home to another, from one origin to another.

In this way, Jews who are born Jews are able to empathize with the life-changing experience a convert goes through when he or she leaves the religious and often personal life of his or her birth parents and goes after a longing deep within his or her soul for a Jewish home. The ‘ger’ chooses Avraham’s path of ‘lech lecha’, of going outside of oneself in order to actually return to oneself, to literally ‘lech’ ‘go’, ‘lecha’ ‘to yourself’. The convert literally renews the very covenant that began the history of the Jewish people, the journey of our great ancestors Avraham and Sarah. How beautiful it is that every convert attaches ‘bar/bat Avraham veSarah’ to his or her Hebrew name.

But what does it mean to ‘know the soul of the stranger’, as the verse in Parshat Mishpatim delineates?

I believe we can learn from this verse that the journey of the convert tells us about the soul of the Jewish people. We have seen a connection between the ger and the Jewish people in the biblical narrative, and we are able to draw emotional connections between the two in their stories of anguish, seeking, and the ability to see Godliness in the most unexpected of places. We see this in Masechet Yevamot 47a, in which the rabbis must ask a person who expresses a desire to convert, “‘Do you not know that Israel at the present time is persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions’? If he replies, ‘I know and yet am unworthy’ he is accepted [and may convert].” The convert sees holiness and meaning in the midst of suffering and actually emulates Moses stopping to cherish a meager thorny bush aflame with fire (Shemot 3:1-6).

Judaism transformed when we as Jews left Egypt and embarked upon a journey of intimacy, faith, and reciprocity with God. We know the soul of the ger because we know what it means to trust in God, to take the first step into the Yam Suf, and to follow our individual nefashot, souls, toward ‘Na’aseh veNishmah’, ‘We shall do and we shall then understand’. Part of Jewishness is being kodesh, being holy and separate. The ger is inherently a stranger, a person who knows very intimately what it means to be separate.

Difference and otherness allow for holiness. Through the empathy gained in knowing separateness, we are truly able to earn and cultivate kedushah, holiness, within ourselves. And as we learn in Masechet Shavuot 39a on Devarim 29:13 concerning God’s covenant with both those who were physically present at Sinai and those who were not, traditionally we believe that the souls of all converts were also at Sinai, and thus their act of conversion may be viewed as a soul-calling.

As gerim who left Egypt, we as Jews were able to enter into a new kind of covenant with God—a covenant that included the Torah, the Oral Torah, Israel, and the marriage our people with our Creator. Thus the journey of the ‘ger’ is imperative to understanding the value and holiness of leading a Jewish life.

Returning to the image of my father in a field of Kabbalists as the setting sun carries in the Shabbat bride, I am struck by the reality of God’s hand in his journey as well as in mine. It suffices to say that without my father, I would not be who I am today. I would be lacking the gifts he gave me that molded my own spiritual nature, empathy, and longing to seek out God. His personal journey to becoming a Jew challenged me to actively make my Judaism my own, to cherish it, and to see the beauty of being a ger, a holy stranger waiting with open arms to embrace our Creator.

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Alissa Thomas is currently a student at Yeshivat Maharat. She graduated from Brandeis University with a bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and a bachelor’s degree in Classical Studies Archaeology and Ancient History. She has studied at Machon Pardes, Neve Yerushalayim, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She has completed one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Bellevue Hospital and is also the present Rosh Beit Midrash for Uri L’Tzedek. She is originally from Los Angeles, California and currently lives in New York City.

1 Comment

  1. Alissa, I would like to thank you for this truly insightful article. As a Jew by Choice myself, I can empathize fully with your comments. I find my personal journey is like leaving Egypt for an unknown wilderness – with all its ups and downs and times thinking it would be easier to return it mitzrayim and avoid the challenges. You inspire me to keep going. Your father must be a special man. Today rabah! Heshi

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    Heshi
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