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