Embracing the stranger…

Naso - Embracing the stranger...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Naso: Numbers 4:21-7:89

"A man or a woman…" (Numbers 5:6)

The leap from the problem of the verse to the midrash seems quite distant, at first. The question is why call out both man and woman in the phrase having to do with committing a wrong against another person. In Hebrew, it would have been sufficient to say ish and have it mean a person, as both genders are implied. In this case, though, the text calls out both ish and isha, raising the specter of why it is necessary to specify a woman. The leap will become clear later; for now, let’s listen:

This bears on the Scriptural text, The Lord loveth the righteous; the Lord preserveth the proselytes (Ps. 146:8 f.)

To what may this be compared? To a king who had a flock which used to go out to the field and come in at even. So it was each day. Once a stag came in with the flock. He associated with the goats and grazed with them. When the flock came in to the fold he came in with them; when they went out to graze he went out with them. The king was told: ‘A certain stag has joined the flock and is grazing with them every day. He goes out with them and comes in with them.’

The king felt an affection for him. When he went out into the field the king gave orders: ‘Let him have good pasture, such as he likes; no man shall beat him; be careful with him!’ When he came in with the flock also the king would tell them, ‘Give him to drink;’ and he loved him very much. The servants said to him: ‘Sovereign! You possess so many he-goats, you possess so many lambs, you possess so many kids, and you never caution us about them; yet you give us instructions every day about this stag!’ Said the king to them: ‘The flock have no choice; whether they want or not, it is their nature to graze in the field all day and to come in at even to sleep in the fold. The stags, however, sleep in the wilderness. It is not in their nature to come into places inhabited by man. Shall we then not account it as a merit to this one which has left behind the whole of the broad, vast wilderness, the abode of all the beasts, and has come to stay in the courtyard?’

In like manner, ought we not to be grateful to the proselyte who has left behind him his family and his father’s house, aye, has left behind his people and all the other peoples of the world, and has chosen to come to us?

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers VIII:2

Let’s begin with the simple meaning of this midrash, for it is very sweet on its own: it teaches us, in the most pragmatic of terms, of the special relationship between the Eternal One and the convert, of the intense love the convert must feel to leave what is familiar and attach him or herself to this new people, this new culture, this new geography of both land and spirit, and how the Eternal One reciprocates that love. It is a quiet lesson also to those who wonder whether a convert is "fully" Jewish, but that is a topic for another time.

Looking a little more deeply, notice that there is an equivalence set up at the beginning, in the proof-text between the righteous and the convert: it implies that that same special relationship is available to everyone, whether a Jew by choice or by birth: through a passionate dedication to righteousness, that same attachment can be found. And let me hasten to note that this is a dedication to righteousness, not judgment.

But the deepest meanings come when we look more closely at the language, and how we have adjusted its meaning over time. The word that is translated as "prosylete" (convert) is ger – which actually means "stranger."

You see, originally we were speaking about what we might call today the ger toshav – the stranger within our gates. Not a convert at all – converts, after all, are fully Jewish, and require no special status. A ger toshav is someone who chooses to attach themselves to the Jewish people without converting, yet loving us still to live among us and by our laws. These were the original objects of this terms, and of all the laws regarding the stranger; it was only later in history that the term was "adjusted" to mean convert. Why was this done? Again, a topic for another time, but simply put, there have been times when the need to isolate ourselves from other societies was far more pressing.

Today, however, we have the opportunity to consider the original intent: how do we welcome someone into our community who does not convert but desires attachment nonetheless? Who has no desire to change from stag to goat, but nonetheless loves the herd?

Oh! And what is the connection with the original question – the naming of both woman and man? Because far too often, it is the woman who has been seen as the outsider, the other – and this midrash reaches out to all.

When we discover the way to open the gates of our hearts to the gerim among us – the "other," however we view them – then we will discover yet another gate to the love of the Eternal One for us all.

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One Response to “Embracing the stranger…”

  1. Or Am I? says:

    Great Midrash, my first from you! BTW, if I had a choice between Talmud study and Midrash, I would choose Midrash everytime. So thank you for bringing me back to my first love.

    As much as I want to focus on the convert – who I agree we should love with all our hearts – this midrash keeps bringing me back to the stranger among us. So often, in addition to the convert (a full Jew), the stranger is often a “full member” of the community who feels marginalized, pushed to the side, invisible. Yes, women. Yes, those who are not knowledgeable about Torah or ritual. Yes, those suffering, whether from addiction or infertility, or financial hardship, or … Or… Or…

    What a lovely midrash to remind us that the Holy One loves them all and we should do a better job loving them, embracing them, drawing them in closer too!