In this week’s portion, B’ha-alo-t’kha, the Israelites celebrate the Passover for the only time while they are wandering in the Sinai desert. Some Israelites are not in the proper state of ritual purity to perform the Passover sacrifice, so Moses appeals to God, who institutes a second chance at performing the Passover one month later (Numbers 9:4-14). Within this set of laws, we learn that a ger - whom the Rabbis understand to be a Jew-by-choice - has the same laws as a born member of the Israelite nation. “When a ger lives with you, he shall perform the Passover for Hashem; he shall perform the Passover per its statutes and its laws; there shall be one statute for you, for the ger and the citizen of the land,” (Numbers 9:14). The midrash Sifrei explains that without this verse, one might think that when a person converts to Judaism, they celebrate the Passover on the day of their conversion. This suggestion makes sense. The Talmud teaches us (K’ritot 9a) that the steps to convert to Judaism are the same steps taken by the Israelites at Sinai before receiving the Torah: circumcision for men, ritual immersion, and a sacrifice (no longer performed today). If conversion is meant to mimic the creation of individual Israelites, it would be sensible to start from the moment of the Israelites’ individual freedom, which begins not at Sinai, but rather at Passover.
Why then does a Jew-by-choice not enter the Jewish people by immediately reenacting the Passover? I would like to offer two possibilities. First, the Passover ceremony is about reenacting the time when God freed us to accept the Torah. Every year we remember that we were incapable of making this move on our own; we needed God to free us from Egypt so that we could accept the Torah. The Jew-by-choice, however, freed themselvesto accept Torah by choosing to convert. They did not require God’s help in accepting God and God’s Torah. They achieved this status on their own, about which most of our Israelite ancestors could only dream.
Another possibility is that accepting Torah and reenacting the Passover are fundamentally different in nature. The first is an individual journey. The pieces involved can be done individually and alone—until the building of a centralized house of worship, even some sacrifices were done individually. However, Passover is about the entire nation recalling a national event. It needs individuals to come together and perform it, and it is not a true reenactment if only a few take part. To ask a newly converted Jew to perform a Passover alone, or even with a few fellow converts, would send a message that this person was not yet part of the larger Jewish community. By telling them they do not need to perform the Passover until a larger group of Jews is performing, our tradition reifies their place in the community, ensuring that they are not isolated or singled out as Jews-by-choice.
These two approaches suggest a model for accepting a new person - whether a Jew by birth or by choice - within our communities. On one hand we should appreciate the incredible effort they put forth to join our community. On the other hand, we should not allow this effort to leave them alone and singled out. Rather we should invite them into our communal practices as if they were always there from the start.
Reb. Joel Goldstein
In Parshat Naso, this week’s Torah portion, two seemingly unrelated topics appear right next to one another. The first topic is about giving gifts to the priests (Numbers 5:9-10) and the second topic is about a jealous husband who suspects his wife of cheating without any real proof (Numbers 5:11-31).
Searching for literary continuity between these themes, the Talmud (Brakhot 63a) asks what the relationship is between these two topics. It explains that one who separates taxes for the priest but does not givethem will eventually need the priest to perform an elaborate ceremony to settle the issue of the jealous husband. It is not obvious from the Talmud if this is the result of Divine punishment for not giving taxes to the priest or a warning about souring a relationship on whom one might later come to rely.
However, I would like to suggest it is a lesson on the intertwined nature between the relationship of a community and its leadership and the relationship among the individuals of that community. The Talmud never assigns all or any of the blame on the non-priest. Perhaps both the priest and the non-priest share in the blame. It is the priest’s job to approach non-priests to collect taxes and the non-priests are permitted to give their taxes to whichever priest they like. The priest cannot force people to give to him in particular. Rather, the priest must cultivate the proper relationship with the people so that they give over their taxes willingly. The Torah’s lesson for us is that a leader who fails to properly cultivate relationships with the community has a partial hand in causing breakdowns in relationships among the lay people as well.
This sets a goal for me as I step into the job as your community’s religious leader: to recall the awesome responsibility the Torah puts upon religious leadership. A religious leader cannot take all the credit or the blame for the community they lead. Like the priest whose job it is to ensure people properly pay their taxes but is not permitted to force any hands, the job of a religious leader is neither to allow people to be remiss in their religious connections, nor is it to coerce people in their religious duties. Instead, it is to create relationships that encourage the community religiously. To do so can also help to create not just a strong religious community, but a strong community as a community.
May God grant me the strength to live up to this awesome responsibility and help me to continue to allow and encourage the amazing Jewish community in Hull to thrive.
שבת שלומ - Shabbat Shalom
Reb Joel Goldstein