The idea of the convert is as old as the Jewish people’s birth itself. The outsider joining into the Jewish people is found in Shemot, “And also, a great mixed multitude went up with them, and flocks and cattle, very much livestock.” (12:38). Rashi quoting the Zohar, says this mixed multitude was a mixture of nations who converted in their awe and fear of the Almighty.
Perhaps the most famous of all of these mixtures of multitudes, was the conversion of Yitro, the Father in Law of Moshe. “Now Moses’ father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt.” (ibid. 18:1) Rashi in his commentary on the verse explains that Yitro had seven names, one of which was Yeter. The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, explains why the letter vav, and not any other Hebrew letter, was added to Yitro’s name after his conversion to Judaism. He writes that the gematria, or numerical value, of the name Yeter is 610, while the name Yitro (which contains the added letter vav which equals 6) has a numerical value of 616 (Gur Aryeh).
As a potential convert, Yitro needed to accept upon himself 616 commandments. This is because, in addition to accepting upon himself the 613 commandments that all other born Jews are duty-bound to observe, a convert has to perform 3 additional mitzvos in order to become Jewish – circumcision (for males), ritual immersion in a mikvah, and (in the times when he had a Temple) bringing a sacrificial offering to Hashem. Yeter therefore had a vav added to his name after he converted, bringing the total numerical value of his new name Yitro to 616, symbolizing the 616 commandments he now took upon himself in the process of becoming a Jew.
The story of Yitro’s conversion directly correlates to the development of the Jewish people. The Rambam writes, “Israel entered the covenant [with God] with three acts: circumcision, immersion, and offering a sacrifice.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Isurei Biah 13:1).
He goes on to say that the circumcision occurred as the Jewish people undertook the first Pesach offering. Immersion occurred prior to receiving the Torah, when the Jewish people immersed themselves three days prior to the revelation at Sinai. And the offering was when all of Israel brought an elevation offering.
The Rambam then states, all those who want to enter the covenant must, in his words, “Accept upon himself the yoke of the Torah” (ibid. 13:4).
What is this extra condition? The Torah recounts an interesting event within our history, “And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it within the hearing of the people, and they said, “All that the Lord spoke we will do, and we will hear.” (Shemot 24:7). The Jewish people heard what Moshe read to them, and they accepted upon themselves the yoke of Torah. And thus, all the requirements of a convert were fulfilled by those Jews who stood at the base of the mountain, some 3300 years ago.
This idea of the Jewish people undergoing a conversion, links us with countless people across the generations who gave up so much to become part of people, and Shavuot is intrinsically linked to this idea. We read from the book of Ruth, and those famous lines, where without any apparent motive or personal benefit, Ruth placed her lot with the Jewish people. Ruth’s persistence in staying with Naomi and her proclamation;
“And Ruth said, “Do not entreat me to leave you, to return from following you, for wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. So may the Lord do to me and so may He continue, if anything but death separate me and you.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
Ruth accepted the yoke of our people, and in turn becomes the direct maternal line of King David.
Each of us is the product of conversion, and each of us has a constant obligation to renew our acceptance of the Torah as we discussed yesterday. The Midrash Tanchuma states, “Dearer to God than all the Israelites who stood at Mt Sinai is the convert. Had the Israelites not witnessed the lightning, thunder, and trembling mountain, and had they not listened to the sounds of the shofar, they would not have accepted the Torah. But the convert, who did not see or hear any of these things, surrendered to God and accepted the yoke of Heaven. Can anyone be dearer to God than that?” (Lech Lecha 6:32)
The Midrash comes as an interesting connector to us sitting in the present day – Dearer than all of us standing at Sinai with the bells and whistles, is the person who accepts the Torah without the fanfare. Directed at the typical convert, it is relevant to all of us.
Those of us who are born Jewish, or those who become Jewish, are Jewish through and through and there is no going back. However, being part of a people gives us no more than an abstract connection to one another. Actively choosing to be Jewish, actively choosing to engage with our laws, traditions and texts, renewing our connection to the yoke of the Torah, endears us to the Almighty.
Rabbi Alon Meltzer is the rabbi of Congregation Or Chadash and director of programs at Shalom, in Sydney, Austrailia. Rabbi Meltzer also served as chaplain at the Canberra Hospital and the Australian National University.