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The first Jew was essentially a convert!

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Mishpatim” (Exodus 21:1 – 24:18) and among its many commandments is the commandment to treat converts kindly as it says, “Do not mistreat or oppress a convert, for you were foreigners in Egypt”. As such, I would like to use this week’s article to talk about some famous converts of the Bible.

The first and certainly the most famous convert to Judaism was none other than Abraham, the first Jew! Abraham was born in the year 1948 BCE (does the date look somewhat familiar?). Abraham grew up in a society where everyone, including him and his family, worshipped idols.

However, at the age of just three years old, Abraham began to think about God and spirituality. He eventually come to his own realization that idol worship was ridiculous. With this, he brought himself to monotheism, the belief in One God.

As Maimonides describes it: “He had no teacher, nor was there anyone to inform him. . . . He realized on his own that there was one God who controlled the sphere, that He created everything, and that there is no other God among all the other entities. . . .”

Abraham destroyed his father’s idols, was arrested for heresy and sentenced to death. He was thrown into a fiery furnace, but a miracle occurred, and he survived. God eventually acknowledged Abraham’s recognition of Him and formed a covenant with Abraham which included the promise, “To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates River . . .”

There you go, the first Jew, who was essentially a convert.

When a convert is called up to the Torah he is referred to as “Ben Avraham” the son or daughter of Abraham. So if the convert’s name is, say “Chaim”, he would be called to the Torah “Chain ben Abraham” and not with his father’s name as is done for people who are born Jewish. This is because for a convert, his father is Abraham, and his mother is Sara.

Indeed, when a person converts to Judaism, it is as if he or she has been born anew, this time as a member of the Jewish people, and their past lineage is ignored.

While this might seem odd or unfair, it simply reinforces the idea that the convert is a full member of the Jewish people, irrespective of his or her past. Because this transformation is spiritual, rather than literal, the lineage takes a spiritual turn, as well. Instead of being referred to as the child of non-Jewish parents, the convert is referred to as the daughter of Abraham and Sarah, the parents of Judaism.

Another famous convert of the Bible is Jethro. Jethro had seven names: “Reuel”, “Jether”, “Jethro”, “Hobab”, “Heber”, “Keni”, and “Putiel.” Here’s something you might not have known: Jethro, along with Balaam and Job, were advisors to Pharaoh. When Pharaoh asked his advisors how to exterminate the Jews, Jethro fled and ran away from Egypt in order to avoid haven’t to answer the question. Job remained silent. Balaam suggested to enslave them.

According to most sources, Jethro became the chief priest of Midian and their idolatrous religious. But like Abraham, Jethro also came to the realization on his own that idol worship was foolish and abandoned it. As a result, his fellow Midianites excommunicated him, and he could find no assistance in his “shepherding business.” As such, his daughters became his shepherds.

Truth be told, there is some discussion among the sages as to whether Jethro did indeed convert to Judaism, or if he merely abandoned idolatry and became a monotheist, also known as a “Noahide.” Most sources seem to insist that he formally converted to Judaism, Either way, Jethro may have been the first to utter a blessing to God for the miracles He performed for the Jewish people.

Finally, what’s a discussion of converts from the Bible without mention of Ruth, right?

Ruth was the daughter of Eglon, King of Moab, who was the son of Balak. She was from royalty. Ruth first married Machlon, the son of Naomi.

According to some sources, Ruth did not convert at this time even though she married a Jew. According to other sources, she did convert at this time, but it was more of a superficial conversion solely for the sake of marriage, as is sadly so often the case today. Such “conversions” are meaningless.

Ruth loved her mother-in-law and clung to her even after the death of her husband and even joined her on her return to the land of Israel.

It was at this time that she converted sincerely and wholeheartedly. Ruth’s famous words “For wherever you go, I will go; 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” are the fundamentals of conversion.

We are told that in between these verses there was a deeper dialogue that went something like this:

Naomi: “My daughter, it is not the way of Israel to go to theaters or to circuses, but only to synagogues and study halls. Nor is it the way of Israel to go more than two thousand cubits on the Sabbath.”

Ruth: “Wherever you go, I will go.”

Naomi: “We are forbidden to be alone with the opposite sex.”

Ruth: “Wherever you lodge, I will lodge.”

Naomi: “Incestuous relations are forbidden to us.”

Ruth: “Your people shall be my people.”

Naomi: “Idolatry is forbidden to us.”

Ruth: “Your God will be my God.”

Converts today are often told all the same things during their conversion process.

Conversion is not a joke or a casual decision. A conversion must be undertaken as a result of a desire to join the Jewish people and observe all the mitzvot of the Torah. A conversion for any other motive is simply not a conversion. Take it from a Moabite princess!

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.

Medicine: A Partnership Between God and Man

Caring for Each Other is #1

Not Everything in the Torah Should be Taken Literally

Doing the Right Thing is a Full-Time Job

We All Need Our Ears Pierced Sometimes

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