Having just completed the celebration of the Pesach holiday, fresh in our memory is the recounting of the historical record of our ostracism, isolation, and vilification as Jews from the mainstream of society. The Haggadah references this idea when we read, “In every generation there arise those who want to destroy us.” What creates this reaction to Jews by others? The very name of this week’s parsha, Kedoshim, in one word encapsulates the answer.
Kedoshim derives from the word, “kodesh.” It is often translated as “holy” but that translation just begs the question what does “holy” mean? A better translation of the word “kodesh” is “special,” “ different,” or “unique.” My Kiddush cup is my Kiddush cup, to give a simple example, because I use it exclusively for special occasions, to inaugurate Shabbat or a holiday. If I used that same cup every day for drinking (wine, beer, soda, juice), it would not be special. The Jewish people are “kodesh,” unique and special only if they live differently than everyone else. However, the purpose isn’t to be different just for difference sake. Rather, being different is a result of our responsibility to ourselves and others to model the fulfilling human existence all people can have.
We should not be surprised, therefore, that later in the parsha we come across the law of a convert. Such a person chooses, by virtue of his or her free will, to embrace Judaism. This very phenomenon attests that proper modeling can lead others to make life altering changes in how they act. Here, however, with regard to the convert, the Torah tells us two specific mitzvot: don’t taunt the convert and love the convert like yourself. Then the Torah states the reason for these two special mitzvot, “ for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
What is the need for these two mitzvot? We cannot abuse anyone and we are also enjoined elsewhere in the Torah “love your fellow Jew as yourself.” So the convert is already included and protected by these two commands!? Furthermore, why does the Torah provide a reason for these special mitzvot of a convert?
Converts are in a very vulnerable position. In fact the Hebrew term for a convert is “ger” or “stranger.” No longer practicing their previous lifestyle, converts are no longer part of their former group. At the same time, they may not yet be fully embraced by their new group, the Jews. In short, they face the distinct possibility of being estranged by both their old associates and their new associates.
Along comes the Torah and tells us, the card carrying members of the convert’s new group, first to be on guard for our own shortcomings. Looking down at a convert points out serious defects within us. They stem from base parts of our own psychology. One part, the mechanism of denial, attempts to protect us from painful reality. Another powerful internal force is also at work. It functions to determine our friendships by the shallow emotion of identification. These flawed character traits quickly show themselves by hurtful and taunting words hurled at the convert. No wonder our Haggadah includes the honest account that our forefather, Terach, was an idol worshiper. In truth, our lineage is no different than the convert’s. We must recognize our own process in coming to the correct way of life. It was solely due to the teaching and modeling of Abraham, our father.
Second, the convert has freely chosen “to come and enter under the wings of Hashem’s divine presence,” to quote the Rambam. By dint of his or her own strength of intellect and personal fortitude, the convert has decided to fully align his or her life with the will of God regardless of any personal harm that may now come by virtue of this choice. To quote the Rambam again, “Hashem loves converts as the Torah says, ‘I, God, love a convert.’” Therefore any natural born Jew, who truly lives in line with the Torah, must also love a convert. Not to would be tantamount to denying God’s plan for mankind. The Torah, therefore, reminds us that we too were subject to societal rejection in Egypt, “You were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
As we approach the commemoration of the Shoah, next Sunday night and Monday, we must never forget that ugly and horrific period of human history; but we must also always remember that every human being is created in the “image of God” and thus has the ability and potential to live a fully righteous life, specific background or current way of living notwithstanding. We, as Jews, can tap into and stimulate that potential in others. How? Only by us first being “Kadosh.” If I could change one word in the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, it would be “להיות עם קודש” instead of “להיות עם חפשי” “to be a unique, special nation” rather than “to be a free nation.” As we relate to others in that framework, we can truly be the “light to the nations” God designed us to be. In that way we can prevent a future Holocaust.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan