In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Eikev, we read about how Hashem loves the convert and provides him with bread and raiment. (See chap.10, verse 18.) In the next verse (19), we are commanded to love the convert, since we ourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt. Similarly, Exodus 23, verse 9 commands, “Never oppress converts. You know what it’s like to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” There are many other verses in the Torah stressing the special treatment to be afforded to converts.
The Hebrew word for convert is ger, which also means stranger. Sometimes ger is misinterpreted to mean stranger when it is meant to be understood as convert. The Torah has already commanded us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We are also commanded not to oppress our neighbor. (Leviticus, 25, verses 14 and 17.) But the Torah makes a point of singling out the ger, and gives the reason: because you were strangers in Egypt.
Just as we felt out of place in Egypt, a convert feels out of place both in his new environment and in his former one. He (or she) has possibly endured great suffering by leaving his homeland and people and no doubt is frowned upon by those from whom he has separated himself. Meanwhile, he must cope with his new situation as a Jew, another trying challenge. He may feel as if he is in a weak position, insecure and out of place. It may take many years to adjust to his new situation. Thus the Torah demands that we be extra sensitive when relating to the Ger. By emphasizing our former status as strangers in Egypt, the Torah reminds us to identify with those in similar distress.
Since Gerim often have old habits to break and are not yet fully versed in Jewish laws and practice, their new co-religionists may not be as supportive as they should be. Therefore, G-d reminds us that in Egypt we ourselves stooped down to 49 levels of impurity. That being the case, we have no right to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. Hashem took us out of the mud and turned us into a nation of kings. His is the way we must adopt towards the Ger.
According to the kabala, Gerim come from the souls which dispersed from Adam after his sin and became entrapped in husks (klipot). Gerim come from especially holy souls which had the strength to pull away from the husks. (See Or HaChaim HaKadosh on Genesis, 49, 9.) Yitro, for example, was already pulling away from the local practices even before he met Moshe, as evidenced by the nasty behavior of the shepherds towards his daughters.
The word ger is mentioned for the first time in Genesis, 15, verse 13, when G-d says to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years.” The Talmud, in tractate Nedarim 32, asks why Avraham was punished with the enslavement of his descendants for so many years. Rabi Elazar says it’s because when the King of Sodom said to Abram , “Give the people to me and take the goods for yourself (Genesis, 14:21),” Abraham agreed to transfer his prisoners of war to the King of Sodom. Apparently, these people wanted to cleave to Avraham. If he’d held on to them, he might have been able to bring them close to G-d.
The Torah is telling us that we must reach out to the Ger and help him cleave to Am Yisrael. Especially since there is always the danger that he can fall prey to his original klipot if not supported and guided. We must continue to supply support for the bread (torah, comprising laws, customs, beliefs, and ethical conduct) and raiment (his new public demeanor of modesty and humility) with which Hashem, in his love of the Ger, has supplied him. This is the deeper meaning of “G-d loves the Ger and provides him with bread and garments.”
Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith Itamar