By April Akiva, MAJE
Director of Congregational Learning
Have you ever sat in Shabbat services, looking around at the diverse faces in the congregation? Who joined the Jewish people in his or her own lifetime? Who had parents or grandparents as converts? For those whose families have been Jewish for generations, did they stem from the original Israelites or did they enter into the covenant later in history? Who sitting in our congregation is a non-Jew, nurturing her Jewish family by being present in the community?
In Parashat Shelach, we are perpetually reminded that while in the desert of Sinai, the Israelites were not alone. Among them were a slew of “gerim” sojourning with them during the years in the wilderness. The term, ger, appears a number of times in the Torah, with this parasha being no exception:
One rule applies to the assembly, for yourselves and for the ger who resides [with you]; one rule applies throughout your generations just as [it is] for you, so [it is] for the proselyte, before the Lord (Numbers 15:15).
There shall be one law and one ordinance for you and the ger who resides [with you] (Numbers 15:16)
The kohen shall atone on behalf of the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and it shall be forgiven them, for it was an error, and they have brought their offering as a fire offering to the Lord and their sin offering before the Lord because of their error. The entire congregation of the children of Israel and the ger who resides with them shall be forgiven, for all the people were in error (Numbers 15:25-26)
But if a person should act highhandedly, whether he is a native born or a ger, he is blaspheming the Lord, and that soul shall be cut off from among its people. For he has scorned the word of the Lord and violated His commandment; that soul shall be utterly cut off for its iniquity is upon it (Numbers 15:30-31)
What and who is this ger? According to rabbinic writings, the ger refers to a “stranger” or “dweller.” The JPS Commentary takes the definition further by describing the ger as a “protected stranger.” The gerim are those who attached themselves to the people of Israel during the Exodus from Egypt. They exist and are a part of the community.
At a first glance of Parashat Shelach, it appears that there are no distinctions between the ger and the native-born Israelite. For the commandments listed within the parasha, no such distinctions exist. However, according to the JPS commentary, The ger is bound by the prohibitive commandments but not by the performative ones. The ger only keeps the commandments that protect the Israelites from “pollution” such as purity laws, not murdering, etc. He may participate in the voluntary sacrificial cult if he follows its prescriptions.
During our time in the wilderness, was there a way to transition one from the status of ger to that of full-fledged Israelite? In biblical times, ethnicity was the only criterion for membership in a group and the ger could only join as a full member through marriage. Intermarriage was no foreign concept in ancient Israelite history and actually increased the population of the tribe. There were no formal processes to become a Jew—the marriage ceremony sufficed. It wasn’t until the 4th century B.C.E that strangers started to become practicing Israelites without marrying in.
The gerim were often great contributors to Israelite society. In fact, Caleb, the faithful spy who scouts out Canaan and encourages the Israelites to conquer the land in this parashah, is not an Israelite, but a ger. It is through Caleb and Joshua’s spirit and trust in God that the Israelites continue into the land flowing with milk and honey. Eventually, Caleb’s line becomes fully part of Israel.
Where did each of our Israelite journeys begin? In Egypt? At Sinai? In the times of the Temple? In the Diaspora? In America? We have all entered into the covenant in a unique way. What better way to celebrate this than to join together as a TBS community?
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