Rabbi Eliad Skuri
Former Rosh Kollel in Kansas City
We find a unique and interesting halakhah in the laws concerning converts:
When someone comes to convert, we ask him, “Why do you wish to convert? Don’t you know that the Jewish people are pushed around and oppressed, persecuted and preyed upon?!” If he replies, “I know and I am unworthy to join them,” we immediately accept him. . . . We inform him of some of the easy commandments and some of the difficult ones. . . . We also inform him of the punishments for transgressing the commandments. We tell him, “Before you attained this status, if you ate forbidden fat you would not have been punished with excision, and if you desecrated the Sabbath you would not have been stoned. Now, however, if you eat forbidden fat you are liable to excision, and if you desecrate the Sabbath you are liable to be stoned.”
Just as we inform him of the punishments for transgressing the commandments, so too we inform him of the rewards for fulfilling them. We tell him, “You should know that the World to Come is reserved for the righteous. In this world, the Jews cannot bear either too much prosperity or too much suffering.” If he accepts the commandments, we immediately circumcise him (Yevamot 47a-b).
Chazal are instructing us to put the prospective convert to the test. We must make very clear to him that an inseparable part of his joining the Jewish nation must be his willingness to accept the yoke of the commandments. Furthermore, while they carry great reward, they also involve tremendous responsibility. Previously ordinary actions now carry great penalties. Only if his reply is, “Even so I agree, and I wish to assume this yoke,” do we accept him and circumcise him.
The purpose of this warning seems to be so that he cannot later claim, “Had I known I would not have converted” (Semag, Negative Commandment #116).
But it seems that a more profound meaning can be ascribed to this interesting halakhah, in accordance with what we see in this week’s parashah, Toldot. It tells the story of Esau’s sale of his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil soup:
Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright today.”
Esau said, “Here I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” . . . and he sold his birthright to Jacob (Genesis, 25:31-32).
Why does Esau agree so readily to sell the birthright with its accompanying rights to Jacob? What is the meaning of the phrase, “Here I am at the point of death”?
Many commentators, among them Ramban and Rashbam, explain simply that Esau’s profession, hunting, is dangerous. Therefore, he realistically calculates that the chances are high that he would meet an unnatural and early death and would not have time to enjoy the rights of the firstborn. So he prefers to sell the birthright to Jacob in return for guaranteed instant gratification – the lentil soup.
This explanation seems to be in synch with the simple meaning of the verses. The main advantage of the birthright is the extra inheritance, and Esau’s fear of death is not directly related to the birthright, but to the fact that he is a hunter likely to die young.
Rashi’s explanation is surprising, as he chooses a homiletical explanation rather than the straightforward one:
Esau asked, “What is the nature of this service (since the sacrificial service would be performed by the firstborn sons)?” Jacob answered, “Several prohibitions and punishments and death penalties are associated with it.” As we learned (Sanhedrin 22b): “The following are included in the death penalty: those who perform the Temple service after having drunk wine, and those who perform the service having long hair.” Esau exclaimed, “I am going to die through the birthright. If so, what is there in it that I would want?”
According to Rashi, the main advantage of the birthright is the privilege and obligation to serve in the Temple as a kohen. Jacob explains to Esau that with great privilege comes great responsibility; one who enters the Temple in an improper way risks the death penalty, as we see in the case of Nadav and Avihu. Esau’s reaction is: “I am not interested in the privilege of serving in the Temple, if on its account I will have such great responsibility and likely punishment. If the birthright itself is liable to cause me death – spare me both it and its reward!” Esau hurries to shrug off this extra privilege due to the extra responsibility that accompanies it. Jacob, on the other hand, does everything in his power to receive this great responsibility, in order to have the privilege of being closer to God and serving in the Temple. This is despite the added responsibility and accompanying liability to punishment.
We see two opposite ways of thinking, two differing spiritual mindsets:
Jacob’s mindset: Choose the privilege to come closer to God despite the accompanying risk Esau’s mindset: Minimize responsibility in order to avoid risk, even if it means losing the privilege.
Jacob’s approach characterized the Jewish nation when it accepted the Torah and its 613 commandments despite their accompanying punishments, with the knowledge that it would allow them the great honor of coming close to God. “God wished to give Israel merit, therefore he gave them much Torah and many commandments” (Mishnah, Makkot 3:16). In contrast, the non-Jews rejected the Torah and the extra responsibility that comes with it, and were content with the minimalistic seven Noachide laws.
So the question we ask the prospective convert actually has profound significance. Whom do you think like, Jacob or Esau? Which mindset is yours? Do you accept extra responsibility despite the accompanying risk? Or are you small-minded, running away from responsibility in order to avoid the risk?
If the prospective convert says, “I accept the commandments despite the extra punishments,” it indicates that Jacob’s pure spirit and mindset rest upon him. Accordingly, we welcome him into the Jewish people.