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This Week's Torah Portion: The Ambiguity Towards Jewish Converts

We're publishing a weekly series of articles covering each week's Torah portion as a rabbi (such as the author) might do via a talk in a synagogue. The series is tailored so it may also be read by non-Jews who may be interested in how Jews read and interpret Scripture. Click here for the first article in the series.

Dëvar Torah – Parashath BëHa‘alothëcha (Numbers VIII,1-XII,16)

Among the topics encountered in this week’s parasha we read of Israel’s departure from the camp at Sinai bashana hashénith bachodesh hashéni bë‘esrim lachodesh (“in the second year in the second month on the twentieth of the month;” X,11), i.e. 20 Iyyar 2449. In the hustle and bustle of Israel’s breaking camp, the Torah tells us, Vayomer Moshe lëChovav ben Rë‘u’él chothén Moshe, Nosë‘im anachnu el hamaqom asher amar Ha-Shem, Otho ettén lachem lëcha ittanu vëhétavnu lach ki Ha-Shem dibber tov ‘al Yisra’él (“And Moshe said to Chovav ben Re‘u’el, Moshe’s father-in-law: we are traveling to the place concerning which Ha-Shem has said, I shall give it to you; go with us and we shall be good to you. For Ha-Shem has spoken well of Israel;” ibid., 29). Yithro (the name by which Chovav is most commonly known) turned Moshe down: ...Lo’ éléch ki im el artzi vë’el moladti éléch (“I shall not go  [anywhere] but to my land, and to my native land will I go;” ibid., 30), whereupon Moshe remonstrated with him: Al na ta‘azov othanu ki ‘al kén yada‘ta chanothénu bamidbar vëhayitha lë‘éynayim. Vëhaya ki théléch ‘immanu vëhaya hatov hahu asher yéytiv Ha-Shem ‘immanu vëhétavnu lach (“Don’t leave us, please, because for this reason have you known our camp in the desert and you have become our eyes. And it will be that you will go with us and  that goodness which Ha-Shem will do with us, we shall [in turn] do for you;” ibid., 31-32). This seems to have satisfied Yithro.

On the surface, it is hard to see what Moshe said  the second time that was so much more persuasive than the first. “Go with us and we’ll be good to you, for Ha-Shem has spoken well of us” doesn’t seem much different than, “Go with us and we’ll be good to you according to the good which Ha-Shem will do for us.” What was the actual issue over which Yithro proposed returning to Midyan?

The Sifrei on our parasha (section 20) may provide us with a clue. Moshe quoted Ha-Shem’s promise  to grant Eretz Yisra’él to Israel as Otho ettén lachem, whence the Sifrei derives: “Lachem”, vë’éyn lagérim cheleq bo (“To you,’ but the converts have no part in it.”) The Sifrei  then quotes Ezekiel XLVII,23: Vëhaya hashevet asher gar hagér itto, sham tittén nachalatho (“And  it will be that the tribe with which the convert lives, there shall you give him his estate”), which seems to imply that gérim can own landed property in Eretz Yisra’él.  The Sifrei resolves the apparent contradiction by concluding nittan lagérim qëvura bë’Eretz Yisra’él (“Gérim are granted burial in Eretz Yisra’él”), i.e. their estate is limited to a burial plot, four amoth square.