A Jewish Birthday

Image: Large bunches of purple grapes hanging from a vine (Jill111/pixabay)

This week’s Torah portion is Shelach-Lecha (“Send For Yourself”)

Shelach-Lecha was the Torah portion 21 years ago when I became a Jew. The portion always reminds me of my year of study towards conversion.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to scout for yourself the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people.” –Numbers 13:1-2

Like Joshua and Caleb, I was a spy in the Land of Israel, learning about it, seeing the beauty of Judaism. Like the 10 other spies, some of what I learned confused and frightened me.

When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, “Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” – Number 13: 17-20

I took a class, met with my rabbi, studied and wondered. Since my rabbi required me to attend Shabbat services every week, I got to know the regulars in the congregation. I met many encouraging people, people for whom I developed a great fondness.

They reached the wadi Eshcol, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes—it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them—and some pomegranates and figs. – Numbers 13: 23

I also met a few who quietly informed me that no convert could never be truly Jewish. Whenever anyone said that, I felt like a grasshopper in a land of giants.

Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” – Numbers 13:32-33

Torah is beautiful. I loved her, and I loved her people. I felt the weight of that love on my shoulders, heavy as the harvest of fruit that the spies carried back to camp.  I felt that for Torah, for Israel and her People, I could learn to deal with the scary giants. My shoulders were ready for the Ohl Hashamayim, the Yoke of Heaven.

The spies did not know what it would be like to be residents of the Land.  They had only their imaginings: their hopes and their fears. In their case, fear won out. For me and for many other gerim [converts,] hope won out. That’s why every Shabbat Shelach-Lecha I say with enthusiasm, “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, sheasani Yisrael!” [Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who has made me a Jew!]

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

13 thoughts on “A Jewish Birthday”

  1. Amen! Happy birthday!!

    And, this belief that “converts can’t be real Jews” came up after my synagogue’s Shavuot discussion of Ruth. Have you ever gotten any understanding of what drives some Jews to hold that belief? Thanks, jen

    1. For some it is ignorance. For others, they’ve been taught a notion of Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) that is racial. Until fairly recently, converts to Judaism were rare and seemed even more so because converts were encouraged to conceal themselves. That’s some of it.

          1. Yes, but I haven’t talked to enough Jews who reject converts to know whether my thoughts are accurate, so I hesitate to speak.
            I do know that it is difficult for any person (or group) who has been persecuted to imagine that any “outsider” could understand that experience… so if a person believes the defining characteristic of being Jewish is to have experienced a lifetime of antisemitism, then there could never be a convert. And I do know that there are many Jews from the generations before mine for whom ‘surviving persecution so that Hitler loses’ drives their connection to Jewish community and their demand that their children be raised as Jews. So, when I hear of Jews alive today who reject converts, I always wonder if it is because they define Judaism based on their having inherited a “burden” for which others will reject and hate them, but that they nevertheless feel compelled to carry on to honor their ancestors.
            And then I get really sad, because to see Judaism as a burden is to not fully comprehend the beauty of this tradition, a tradition that calls us not to know persecution, but to struggle to know God, to walk humbly with faith, to see and try to understand the ‘other’, to show mercy, to be grateful, and to live with joy today simply because we are breathing for another day. I don’t understand why everyone (who doesn’t already have a faith tradition that gives their lives meaning) wouldn’t want to be Jewish!!

            1. I think you are onto something. Born Jews in the United States, particularly older ones, have had the experience of being picked on for being Jewish as kids. That is less of an issue for their grandchildren today, but it shaped their experience of Jewishness.

              On the other hand, some converts to Judaism experience ostracism from their families of origin for their conversion. Pretty much all suddenly have to learn to cope with nasty comments about Jews without the mentorship of parents.

              Competitive suffering is a drag, in my opinion, and it does no one any good.

            2. …coping with nasty comments without mentorship from parents… sounds like being gay! And, yes, turning suffering into a competition causes us to turn inward and separate ourselves from others, rather than acknowledge the pain in a way that could unite us across boundaries.

  2. As a convert myself, I have struggled with this idea as well. The way I have thought about it is to compare it to adoption. Our children were adopted as infants. Are they “really” our children? It’s obvious they were not born to us. Their father and I are both pasty white and they are Peruvian with gorgeous brown skin, black hair and dark eyes. Adoption made them legally our children, just as the ritual/legal process of conversion made me a Jew. But within that tangible process is something mysterious by which an “outsider” is joined to a family or a people as if by birth. Being open to the mysterious and unfathomable is more difficult for some people than for others, and possibly some of the doubt expressed by people who were born Jewish and question the reality of conversion is part of that.

  3. This Torah Portion is where I got my Hebrew name from when I found out what my conversion date would be. It Ramon’s one of the most meaningful sections of the Bible for me.

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