Sunday, November 01, 2009

My Friend's Conversion: A short dvar Torah

A friend of mine converted today.  Amazing!  What an incredible journey.
We couldn't just let her go straight home from the mikveh, so we went out to Bistro Grande to celebrate.
 
I was asked to say a short dvar Torah, and here's what I came up with.  To shorten it a bit more (I still have no voice, and I also didn't want to take too long), I left out the bit in the italics.  But I quite like it, so I'm leaving it in this version.
 

 

When a person comes to study Judaism, although – I hope! – they're welcomed and greeted warmly in shuls and classes, the stark truth is – we don't need you.  The message isn't quite "go away," but just, "we don't need you."

I grew up knowing Jews don't proselytize:  we don't seek to bring in converts.  In general, we believe that as long as a non-Jew follows the seven laws of Noach's descendents, they're doing okay.  "We don't need you."

But the truth is, the world wasn't in great shape after Noach's time.  Hashem promised he wouldn't send another flood, but we know the majority of people were ovdei avodah zara [idol worshippers].  The world was desperate for a message of truth, for a messenger of Hashem.

Then, as we read in yesterday's parsha, along came Avraham and Sara.  Actually, Avram and Sarai, but they shed their old names as they stepped into the greater role that Hashem had prepared for them:  bringing the truth of Hashem into the world.

We know that when Avraham had the courage to leave his family and become the first geir [convert], Hashem didn't just promise him bracha [blessing].  He said "Veh'yeh bracha" – "and you shall be bracha."

What does it mean to be bracha?  It means "we need you."

I am convinced that the entire Jewish world needs geirim and giyoros tzedek [righteous converts - male and female].  They are a bracha to us for their energy, their depth of learning, and also perhaps just to make us aware and proud of our own heritage.  We should never take it for granted.

When you stepped into the water today, just as Rus and Naomi promised each other, your fate, your future, is forever bound up in ours.  "Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba zeh."  All of klal Yisrael are responsible for one another.

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis challenges us with this responsibility.  "Will we parrot the infamous words of Kayin, "Hashomer Ochi anochi?  - Am I my brother's keeper?" or will we respond like Avraham Avinu who said, "HINENI - HERE I AM" and kindled the light of G-d in the hearts of all those with whom he came in contact."

You have already chosen the footsteps of Avraham Avinu.  So it's the least those of us here can do to meet you halfway – to say "hinenu."  Here we are – we are your community now.

I have sat before bais din and been turned away so many times.  There's a story, from a long time ago, that helps me think about that long journey from no to yes.

The Rambam writes that "before the Kohen Gadol went out to do the Yom Kippur service, the elders of the Sanhedrin would make him swear to do the service exactly according to halacha. Specifically, they would make him swear to burn the incense only inside the Kodesh haKodashim as the Torah she b'al peh, the Oral Torah, mandates.

The influential Tzadukim, who denied the authority of Torah she b'al peh, claimed that the incense should first be lit outside the Kodesh haKodashim and then carried inside already burning. The elders made the Kohen Gadol swear not to perform the service this way.

But then – both the Kohen Gadol and the elders would turn aside from each other and weep.

The Kohen Gadol would weep because they suspected him of being a Tzaduki. The elders would weep because there was reason to suspect him.

The lesson in this:  sometimes, those who guard the Torah must make really hard decisions; decisions which bring both sides to tears.  But they have no choice; they are guarding a priceless treasure.

Imagine, then, their simcha, the overwhelming joy when these Torah guardians, these gatekeepers finally have an opportunity to say yes.  To offer the treasure:  it's yours to share.

To say YES:  "We need you."

I am so happy and proud to be able to join in your own, personal Matan Torah, your own personal Shavuos.  Your neshama was standing with mine at Har Sinai, though, so I guess we're all really just here to welcome you back.

Online sources:

Rambam on the Yom Kippur avodah:  http://ohr.edu/yhiy/article.php/3887

Rebbetzin Jungreis on "A Vacuum to be Filled":  http://www.hineni.org:80/rcolumn_view.asp?id=431

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