Sticks and stones…

April 25th, 2010

Naso - Sticks and stones...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Emor: Leviticus 21:1-24:3

"Speak (emor) unto the priests, the sons of Aaron:" (Leviticus 21:1)

By way of an introduction: To update the old adage, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can really hurt me!"

The world was created, we learn, through speech: "And G!d said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light." It wasn’t the Eternal One thinking about it, or wishing for it, or anything else: it was the act of speech that brought this world and all its diverse splendor into being.

It truly is no coincidence that in Hebrew, d’var has two meanings: "word" and "thing." In short, words are real. And how do we bring words into being? By speaking: amar.

In order to understand this midrash, it helps to know a few things. First of all, the information that is about to be communicated to the priests concerns the way in which the priests are supposed to conduct themselves in regards to death: they are not to remove themselves from a holy state and place themselves in a grieving state unless the deceased are their closest of kin. The word for this state of being removed from holiness is tamay – a fairly negative term in Hebrew.

It also should be remembered that, in the "rules" by which we interpret Torah – the hermeneutic principles – no word is extraneous: two words will never be used when one will do. Therefore, if something does seem extraneous, there must be a reason for it.

With that in mind, let’s see what the midrash wrestles with, and what an important lesson emerges from what might appear to be dry hermeneutics! Listen:

R. Tanhum son of R. Hannilai opened his discourse with the text, "The words of (imroth) the Lord are pure words (amaroth)."  (Ps. 12:7). Does this mean that only ‘The words of the Lord are pure words’ and the words of mortals are not pure words? …

‘Pure words.’ R. Judan in the name of R. Johanan, R. Berekiah in the name of R. Eleazar, and R. Jacob of Kefar Hanin, all of whom cited R. Joshua b. Levi, said: We find that the Holy One, blessed be He, used a circumlocution of eight letters so as not to let an unseemly word come out of His mouth; as it says, Of every clean beast… and of the beasts that are not clean (Gen. 7:2). In another passage He made a circumlocution of two or three words in the Torah so as not to allow an unclean word to issue from His mouth. Thus it is written, ‘And of the beasts that are not clean.’  It does not say, ‘the unclean,’ but ‘That are not clean.’ R. Judan b. Manasseh said: Even when He comes to introduce to them the marks of the unclean beast, He only begins with cleanness. Thus, it is not written, ‘The camel, because he parteth not the hoof,’ but Because he cheweth the cud  (Lev. 11:4). It does not say, ‘The rock-badger, because he parteth not the hoof,’ but Because he cheweth the cud  (ib.), and it is the same with the hare and the same with the swine.

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XXVI:1

Let’s begin with the basics, the p’shat:  the main paragraph is telling us that in Genesis 7:2, rather than uttering the negative term "tamay,"  or unclean, G!d says "not clean," which requires eight more letters than unclean. Likewise, rather than highlight a deficit of an animal (the hoof not being parted), the Torah draws attention to an attribute – the fact that they chew a cud. This would seem to violate our principle of parsimony: why use these extraneous letters and words?

At first blush, there is an elegant hypothesis: G!d only speaks in "pure" words – i.e., those which are good, or clean, or sweet. And so, it would seem, G!d "spends" the extra letters in order to frame things positively.

The problem is that the same verse in Torah has G!d telling Moses to say the word "tamay!"  If the hypothesis were correct, then a similar "word dodge" would have been used there!

The first part of the midrash takes the next step in attempting to resolve the dilemma: perhaps G!d only speaks "pure" words directly, and it is only between people that "impure" words are used. Well, that may be so, but with what lesson are we left?

Words create reality. We know this in its crassest sense from the celebrity gossip magazines and big-media politics. Any claim made loudly and/or often enough acquires its own reality, no matter what the truth may be. As do words spoken softly, whispered between friends: "Did you hear…?" These are obvious problems, cases of lashon haRa – evil speech.

There are, however, far more subtle forms of evil speech that trap us completely unawares. Consider these two statements: "She has a strange accent – I can barely understand her!" and "She has a strange accent – it’s so exotic!" Which person do you want to meet first?

We are tuned, biologically, to notice differences. How we appreciate those differences – as opportunities for discovery or dangers from which to retreat – plays a critical role in determining the shape and flavor of the world we live in. The amount of light in our world is directly proportional to the amount of light we allow ourselves to see – and speak about.

Judaism takes us one step further. You see, Judaism conceives the world as having states – pure and impure, kosher and treif, Shabbat and weekday – between which we move back and forth. Judaism also gives us the rituals – the keys for the transitions – so that what is impure one moment can become pure the next.

Most significantly, it teaches us that the most fundamental of those states – that of being either stranger or member – is something we know from both sides, and we must always be working to welcome the stranger, for we "were once strangers in the land of Egypt." We must recognize, and then welcome, the stranger, whether it be someone we don’t know, or someone we think we know, but have cast downward in our gaze because of words we heard – or used ourselves.

May we all be blessed with recognizing the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah  of welcoming the stranger into our hearts, our minds, and our lives.

Without warning…

April 18th, 2010

Achare Mot / Kedoshim - Without warning...
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Achare Mot / Kedoshim: Leviticus 16:1-20:27

"Thus (bezoth) shall Aaron come into the Holy Place:" (Leviticus 16:3)

The text which follows the above gives great detail about how Aaron is to enter the Holy of Holies: when he should come, what he is to wear, what sacrifices he is to make, etc., etc. And what precedes it? A reminder of what happened to Aaron’s sons when they did not do things properly – they died, consumed by Holy fire!

It is worth noting that, included in the accouterments of the High Priest’s robe were a series of bells along the hem. What was the purpose of the bells? Some have argued that they were to let the other priests – who were not allowed inside – know that the High Priest was still alive! If the bells stopped ringing, the argument goes, they would pull him out by a rope that had been attached to his ankle!

Our midrash for this week suggests a very different reason for the bells – and, of course, carries a deeper meaning. Listen:

R. Hanina b. Hakinai and R. Simeon b. Yohai went to study Torah at R. Akiba’s college at Bene Berak, and stayed there thirteen years. R. Simeon b. Yohai used to send home for news, and knew what was happening at his house. R. Hanina did not send and did not know what was happening at his house. His wife sent him word and told him: ‘Your daughter is marriageable, come and get her married.’ He said nothing to his master. Nevertheless R. Akiba saw it by means of the Holy Spirit and said to him: ‘If any one has a marriageable daughter he may go and get her married.’ R. Hanina understood what he meant, so he rose, took leave and went. He sought to enter into his house, but found that it had been turned in a different direction – i.e., he did not recognize it. What did he do? He went and sat down at the place where the women drew water and heard the voice of the little girls saying: ‘Daughter of Hanina, fill your vessel and go.’ What did he do? He followed her until she entered his house. He went in after her suddenly, without announcing himself. No sooner did his wife see him than her soul departed. Said he to Him: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Is that the reward of this poor woman, after thirteen years of waiting for me?’ Thereupon her soul returned to her body.

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XIX:2

I graduated a year early from high school (it’s a long story) and decided to take the "bonus" year doing a variety of things, including moving to San Francisco. It wasn’t all I thought it would be, and I returned home suddenly, without warning, a little mischief in my heart. My mother Z"L (of blessed memory) walked into the living room to see me sitting there, did the perfect double take, and screamed. Funny? I thought so – but it was a real shock for her, and not entirely a pleasant one physically. Thank G!d, it wasn’t her demise…

So at one level, this is a midrash about the need to treat others with care and respect. As M’ Shoshannah points out in her thoughts (want to see them? sign up for my free weekly email!), even our "choreography" in services is resplendent with respect and courtesy. Should we not learn from these lessons and treat those around us with gentleness and caring? Of course! But, what else can we learn?

R. Hanina went to study under the tutelage of R. Akiba, one of the pillars of the Sages. He threw himself into study, abandoning his family for thirteen years. While devotion to study has always been revered – especially by the Sages! – even this was too much. He never saw his daughter grow up, he lost complete touch with his family, what a tragedy! It took his mentor to throw him out and return to his family.

What about us? Are we so consumed with our careers that we lose the balance in our lives? Do we remember to feed our spirits, as well as our bodies? Another good lesson. But let’s go deeper still.

Recall that this midrash is answering the question of why the High Priest wore bells on his hem. If we draw a close parallel to the story, it would seem to say that he needed to warn G!d that he was coming, so as not to chalilah (G!d forbid) "scare" the Eternal One away… How absurd!? How could such a thing even happen – would it mean that G!d cannot see us, not know where we are and be frightened by our sudden approach?

Of course not. But – and here is the deeper lesson – we can "hide" ourselves from G!d, in the way children hide behind a thin cloth, or their fingers, and say "you can’t find me!" Of course we see them. But in their minds, they are invisible, and they act accordingly.

Likewise, we can "pretend" that we are alone, cut ourselves off from a relationship with the Holy One, and live our lives in separation from what matters: the love and protection of Spirit. Just as R. Hanina cut himself off from his family, so can we cut ourselves off from G!d. The good news is – it’s all in our imagination: whenever we want to open the gates of our souls, we will receive and be received back into the shelter of those loving Wings.

A single yud…

April 11th, 2010

Tazria / Metzora - A single yud...
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Tazria / Metzorah: Leviticus 12:1-15:33

"And if a woman have an issue of her blood… she is unclean." (Leviticus 15:25)

I want to begin the discussion with a basic principle of how one applies Torah to modern life. We often read sections of the Scripture that, at face value, may be disturbing; for example, the laws relating to the treatment of slaves. Does the fact that we are told how to acquire and manage slaves mean that we believe slavery is a good thing? Of course not; but then, how are we to understand and apply such texts today?

The answer, simply, is that Torah does not present us with an end point, but a direction. The Sages of the Talmud understood and applied this principle, as have the Sages and Rabbis who followed. What we must do is consider what were circumstances before the Law, what are the circumstances prescribed by the Law, and then project that direction forward.

"An eye for an eye" was a tremendous step beyond the blood feuds that took place before it was law: the loss of an eye in a fight could result in the death of the offender. The Sages, however, did not stop there: they said that no eye was to be taken, but its monetary equivalent. They took the value taught by Torah and applied it forward.

With this text, the midrashists wonder: how can the sign of life be impure? They ask this with a poetic application from the Song of Songs: how can hair be both gold and black? From this intriguing question, R. Ze’era takes an astounding leap to a principle that might appear quite esoteric, until we wrestle with it a bit. Listen:

This has a bearing on the text, His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are in curls, and black as a raven (Song of Songs 5:11). R. Ze’era said: ‘His locks (kewuzzah) are in curls (taltalim)’ means: Even those things in the Torah which appear useless, for instance the thin strokes of letters (kozin) are taltale taltalim, i.e. mounds upon mounds, meaning they have it in their power to bring about the destruction of the world and make it into a mound (tel).

For example, if you make the letter daleth into the letter resh you cause the destruction of the whole of the Universe: it is written, For thou shalt bow down to no other god (Ex. 34:14) (N.B.: the effect would be to change acheir – other or strange – into echad – One, our G!d! After this, many examples follow…)

R. Hina said, in the name of R. Aha: The letter yod which the Holy One, blessed be He, took away from the name of Sarai, He divided into two equal portions; one half he gave to Abraham, and the other half to Sarah. R. Joshua b. Karhah said: The yod of Sarai’s name ascended, and prostrated itself before the Holy One, blessed be He, and said to Him: ‘Lord of the Universe! Thou hast pulled me out from the name of that righteous woman!’ The Holy One, blessed be He, answered: ‘Go! Hitherto you were in the name of a female, and at the end of the word; now I shall place you in the name of a male, and at the beginning of the word.’ So, indeed, it is written, And Moses called Hoshea, the son of Nun, Joshua (Num. 13:16).

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XIX:2

Let me begin with the little bit of gematria – Hebrew numerology – that is necessary to understand the last paragraph. The letter yod – the smallest letter – has the numeric value of 10. The letter heh has the numeric value of 5; thus, one yod is equal to two heh’s. According to this argument, when G!d changed Sarai’s name to Sarah, this was accomplished by replacing the yod with two heh’s: in her name, changing shin-resh-yod to shin-resh-heh, and also in changing Abram’s name to Abraham (through the addition of the remaining heh). That left the original yod removed from the Torah! R. Hina proposes that the Eternal One further blessed the yod by putting it at the beginning of Hoshea’s name, changing it to Joshua.

What can all this possibly mean that is relevant to us?

At its simplest, pshat (literal) level, a woman’s name has been elevated by allowing it to participate in two men’s names – what could be more sexist? Come, let’s look deeper:

Remove the gender issue for a moment; there are two powerful meanings here. One is that every little stroke – even the smallest letter possible to write! – of G!d’s efforts in this world has a purpose. As in the Song of Songs, the tiniest curls in our beloved’s hair can serve to remind us of the twists and turns that our lives take, all within the sphere of the Holy One’s loving gaze.

But deeper still.

The sacrifices we make in our lives, the changes we undertake which seem to diminish us, can benefit others, whether they be the person closest to us, across the room, as Abraham was from Sarah, or by another removed by hundreds of miles and years, as was Joshua. Should we wait until we know who will benefit from the good we do? No! says the midrash.Do the good, and perhaps we will be blessed to see its outcome – or perhaps we will be doubly blessed to never know, just to trust that good will out.

May we each live our lives in readiness for the surprises of goodness that will come our way, instead of the insistence that we be paid in fair measure for our effort.

Divine joy…

April 4th, 2010

Shemini - Divine joy...
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Shemini: Leviticus 9:1-11:47

"Drink no wine nor strong drink." (Leviticus 10:9)

In this week’s portion, we have the rather disturbing event of the death of Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron, as they perform a sacrifice using "unfitting fire" which had not been commanded by God. No detail is given about what made the fire "unfitting," or whatever else may have been awry with their actions, but the penalty is swift and severe: "And fire came out from in front of the Lord and consumed them! And they died in front of the Lord." (Lev. 10:2)

What was their transgression? The Sages probed a number of possibilities: perhaps it was the nature of the fire: was it prepared improperly, according to another people’s rituals, thereby making it "unfitting?" Or perhaps the key is in the fact that it had not been "commanded:" an offering that would have been acceptable at a different time, but in this case at the wrong juncture. Others have suggested that it was not according to a prescribed formula (hearkening back to the "unfitting" issue), and thereby forbidden.

These interpretations have one thing in common: sacrifices must be offered in a precisely correct way, at the precisely correct time, in order to be acceptable. They do not allow for the spontaneity of offerings, something we as Jews have managed to embrace over time. So the Sages searched elsewhere for an explanation.

It happens that the next time in Torah that God speaks, it is to forbid the drinking of wine or beer by Aaron and his sons at the Tent of Meeting "so you won’t die" (Lev. 10:8). It is therefore not unreasonable to conclude that Nadab and Abihu’s crime was that they attempted to perform the sacred rituals while drunk. From this reasoning spring many midrashim, most of them railing against the abuses of alcohol. But consider this very different midrash from R. Aha; listen:

R. Aha said: There is a story of a man who kept on selling his household goods and drinking wine with the proceeds. Said his sons: ‘Our father will leave nothing for us.’ So they plied him with drink, and made him drunk, and took him out and placed him in a cemetery. Wine merchants passed the gate of the cemetery, and hearing that a seizure for public service was to take place in the province, they left their loads within the cemetery and went to witness the uproar in the province. The man, waking up from his sleep and seeing a skin bottle above his head, untied it and put it in his mouth. Three days later his sons said: ‘Should we not go to see what father is doing?’ They went and found him with the wine-skin in his mouth. They said: ‘Even here has your Creator not forsaken you. Seeing that He has given you wine, we do not know what we should do to you.’ They made an arrangement amongst themselves that the sons should in turn provide him with drink, one son one day.

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XII:1

What are we to learn from this curious midrash? Surely the Sages don’t want us to conclude that rampant, unconstrained drunkenness is a good thing?

The solution, I believe, lies in us looking to wine as the standard metaphor for joy, especially spiritual joy. With this "lens," the lesson shifts somewhat: a joyful encounter with God is more important than possessions, and if we are dedicated to this quest, this invigorated life of the spirit, then even those who place well-intended obstacles in our way can be overcome.

However, we cannot ignore the literal meaning of this midrash: unfettered imbibing in the pleasures of the flesh can lead us to a life where that joy is illusory, surrounded by death and the demise of those who care for us. Which interpretation is correct?

As is the hallmark of our heritage, we must find a way to make them both true: not one or the other, but some creative amalgam of the two. This comes, I believe, from the lesson of balance, and the challenges we face as we try to navigate in the worlds of spirit and substance. We must find the path that leads us to unbounded joy while leaving the wisdom of saying "no" to excesses intact; the path in which the energy of the Spirit moves us through the trials of the material world at just the right pace, neither so quickly that we float above matters of consequence nor so slowly that we sink into the mire.

May we each be blessed with the vision – and the community! – to help us maintain that balance, and the strength to lend a hand to others who occasionally lose theirs.

You are the potter…

March 28th, 2010

Chol HaMoed Pesach - You are the potter...
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Chol HaMoed Pesach: Exodus 33:12-34:26, Numbers 28:19-25

"And the Lord said unto Moses: Hew you two tablets of stone like the first…" (Exodus 34:1)

As always, the first thing to understand is, "what is the question?" In this case, we have a whole series of midrashim concerned about the fact that Moses destroyed the first set of tablets that G!d gave him on Sinai – what a crime that was!

Some of the midrashim attempt to mitigate the seriousness of the crime; others try to eliminate it altogether (by saying the tablets slipped, etc.). This one, however, takes a very different tack, one that almost seems juvenile to begin with! Listen:

It is written, But now, O Lord, Thou art our father; we are the clay, and Thou our potter (Isa. 64:7). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: ‘Only now am I your father; when ye find yourselves in trouble ye call Me, "Our Father!"’ They replied: ‘Yes, as it says, In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord’ (Ps. 77:3)…

What is the meaning of ‘We are the clay, and Thou our potter?’ Israel said: ‘Lord of the Universe! Thou hast caused it to be written for us: Behold, as the clay in the potter’s hand, so are ye in My hand, O house of Israel (Jer. 18:6); for this reason, do not depart from us though we sin and provoke Thee, for we are but the clay and Thou art our potter.’ See now, if the potter makes a jar and leaves therein a pebble, then when it comes out of the furnace it will leak from the hole left by the pebble and lose any liquid poured into it. Now what caused the jar to leak and thus to lose any liquid placed therein? The potter who left the pebble therein.

This was how Israel pleaded before G!d: ‘Lord of the Universe! Thou hast created in us an Evil Inclination from our youth, for it says, For the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Gen. 8:21), and it is that which has caused us now to sin, for Thou hast not removed from us the instigator to sin. Remove it from us, we pray Thee, in order that we may perform Thy will.’ G!d replied: ‘This will I do in the Time to Come,’ as it says, In that day, saith the Lord, will I assemble her that halts, and I will gather her that is driven away, and her that I have afflicted (Micah 4:6).

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XLVI:4

At first glance, it seems as though the author is saying, "Don’t blame us for having sinned – it’s Your fault for having made us this way!" Or, to quote Jessica Rabbit: "I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way…"

It also helps to know that the Hebrew yortzenu, "our potter," is a quasi pun with yetzer, short for yetzer hara, or "the Evil Inclination."

So, like last week, we see the issue of the flaw, the distinctiveness that makes us unique, as being part of G!d’s design for each of us. In this case, the flaw is definitely negative: it is the pebble that gives rise to the leak, a defect that must be overcome.

In the midrash, G!d acknowledges the flaw, if somewhat reluctantly, and promises to remove it in the "Time to Come," whether that be the Messianic Era or in Olam Haba, the World to Come. But even this begs the question: why include the pebble, why give us the flaw?

The answer comes, in part, from last week’s midrash – that G!d loves us because of those "flaws" – that distinctiveness in our characters that renders us unique. Additionally, as M’ Shoshannah points out in the sidebar, we get to do the work of clearing those pebbles as best we can, trusting that eventually the Eternal One will complete the job.

So, some might ask, why bother at all, if the end is to be taken care of? Because, I suggest, if the flaw is placed there by the Holy One, it is a remnant to be savored, a token of the creative act itself. By knowing our flaws, and struggling to overcome them, we engage with the Eternal One in a very holy, mystical activity.

May you find your pebbles to be gravel, not boulders!

Healer of the broken heart…

March 21st, 2010

Tzav - Healer of the broken heart...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Parashah Tzav: Leviticus 6:1-8:36

"And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: command Aaron and his sons…" (Leviticus 6:1)

This week foreshadows the tragedy of next week: the death of Aaron’s sons who bring "foreign fire" for the sacrifice. The whys and wherefores of that event will be discussed next week, but it helps to know that some of the midrash suggest that their deaths were punishment for an earlier crime, not the foreign fire itself.

Given that interpretation, the two of them must be seen as "flawed." Why then, this week’s midrash wonders, are they told to bring sacrifices? The meaning is very deep; listen:

R. Abba b. Judan said: Whatever the Holy One, blessed be He, declared unfit in the case of an animal, He declared fit in the case of man. In animals he declared unfit the blind, or broken, or maimed, or having a wen, etc. (Lev. 22:22), whereas in man he declared fit ‘A broken and contrite heart.’ R. Alexandri said: If an ordinary person makes use of broken vessels, it is a disgrace for him, but the vessels used by the Holy One, blessed be He, are precisely broken ones, as it is said, The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart (Ps. 34:19); Who heals the broken in heart, etc. (Ps. 147:3); I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit (Isa. 57:15); ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.’ (Ps. 51:19)

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus VII:2

Astounding! According to this reading, we are drawn to G!d not in spite of our flaws, but because of them! And we are not drawn to the Eternal One in order to be punished for them, but because the Holy One, Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, yearns to heal us!

Yes, our brokenness must be accompanied by contrition, but what really is "contrition" other than a sincere desire to heal?

Too often we are tempted to "see" only the terrifying aspect of Justice in the Almighty: even the words are powerful and intimidating. We read about curses and blessings, and focus on the curses; we recall the Hollywood spectacles of cosmic destruction, but forget the "still, small voice" that the prophets hear.

How much we lose, when we do not recognize the yearning of the Eternal One to comfort us, to take our broken, shattered vessels of body and spirit and heal us.

Another midrash from this same verse extends this Eternal Love not only to us, but to our descendants, arguing that no matter how much we are flawed, our descendants bring our names merit, and so for them we should be honored! This is the reverse of the normal argument, which is that we should be spared from our misdeeds because of the covenant with our ancestors; now, we should be honored because of what we have not yet done!

But most importantly, we must remember that we are loved not despite our flaws, but because of them. This is not only the central teaching of these midrashim, but in the deepest sense, it is the subtlest truth about our relationship with the Eternal One. How magnificent is our G!d!

Roots…

March 14th, 2010

Vayikra - Roots...
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Parashah Vayikral: Leviticus 1:1-5:26

"If any man of you brings an offering to the Lord…" (Leviticus 1:2)

This seems to be a midrash about converts to Judaism, and indeed it has an important message in that matter. I believe we can also take this to a deeper level about spirituality in general. I’ll address both after the midrash; for now, listen:

R. Abbahu opened his discourse with the text, They shall return, dwelling under his shadow (Hosea 14:8). These, he said, are the converts who come and take shelter under the shadow of the Holy One, blessed be He. They shall make corn grow (ib.) means, they become the root just like Israel, even as thou sayest, Corn shall make the young men flourish, and wine the maids (Zech. 9:17). And they shall blossom as the vine (Hosea loc. cit.), even as thou sayest, Thou didst pluck up a vine out of Egypt; Thou didst drive out the nations, and didst plant it (Ps. 80:9).

Another interpretation: They shall make corn grow (Hosea loc. cit.) speaks of Talmud, And they shall blossom as the vine speaks of Aggadah and Halachah (laws). The mention of shall be as the wine of Lebanon suggests: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘The names of converts are as pleasing to Me as the wine of libation which is offered to Me on the altar.’

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus I:2

Converts to Judaism know a special challenge: having been drawn to this ancient religion, they know the privilege and honor of joining this people. And yet there are many born Jews who have a difficult time accepting the convert, as this midrash alludes. Why else would we need a teaching about how valuable converts are, especially since proselytizing is actively discouraged! This is only one of many instances in midrash, Talmud and halachah (Jewish law) in which the matter of converts is addressed. Indeed, it is forbidden by numerous laws to identify a convert as such, or even speak of their pre-Jewish days!

And yet there is a real value that the convert brings: other experiences, other contexts, other perspectives, all of which are somehow "digested" into klal Yisrael – the Jewish people. It is this "foreign fertilizer" which, in the proper proportion, allows the religion to flourish. For Judaism, like any other religion, cannot survive if it becomes stagnant or too insular. Yet it must, especially in light of its small numbers, be careful about change. What a paradox!

So yes, it is the role of the convert to become one with the people and help it to grow like corn – tall and strong. Simultaneously, the convert must be invisible, indistinguishable from other Jews – become part of the root itself, knowing he or she is as sweet to G!d as wine.

Now, onto the deeper issue. Traditionally, "Jews by Choice" are seen as Jewish neshamot – souls – that happen to have been born (or reborn) into non-Jewish bodies. At a first glance, this view could be seen as even more insular: "Converts were never really not Jewish, so we don’t allow any outsiders in at all." Nothing could be further from the truth.

What this view acknowledges is the deep, visceral pull that our spiritual selves feel towards Ein Sof – That which is without limit or definition. Whatever religious or spiritual practice one has, once you have felt that tug, it is hard to ignore it.

And it is a tug that pulls you in a particular direction, even though the path or process is often unclear. Usually, the path has familiar elements to it, but inevitably our journey will require something new from us: some fundamental change.

This view – that converts are Jewish souls, no matter what their physical lineage – acknowledges the strength of that pull, and how it must uproot one from one’s "comfort zone." How important is this pull?

Consider that the Messiah is taught will be a descendant of Ruth’s – a convert! And that Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Talmudic scholars, was also a convert!

The point is that the power of this pull to the Eternal One is formidable, if we give ourselves to it. It will change our lives, and, G!d-willing, make us a force for good in this world – no matter what our path.