here shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country
The concept of the ger [stranger], which is mentioned in our parasha in connection with the paschal sacrifice and the "second" Pesah, is ambiguous. The plain meaning of Scripture does not make it clear whether it refers to a ger tzedek [convert to Judaism] or to a ger toshav [resident alien] - a stranger who lives among us who has taken upon himself the observance of a minimal number of commandments (the seven Noahide commandments, or, according to a differing opinion, the avoidance of idolatry).
The Sages, together with the majority of traditional exegetes, understand the ger mentioned in our parasha to be a ger tzedek, making it obvious that he would be required to celebrate the paschal sacrifice and even the second Pesah if some justified reason kept him from bringing the paschal sacrifice in its proper time.
This explanation does create a certain difficulty for our understanding of Scripture: it is all too obvious! A convert is in all things like a Jew and a citizen of the land. Why would it be necessary to make a special point of his obligation to make the paschal sacrifice?
Furthermore, the Torah makes numerous mentions of the stranger living amongst us in various contexts, and it seems that the plain meaning of the text does not refer to a convert, but rather to a stranger who lives in our midst.
The word ger first appears in the Covenant of the Pieces [Brit ben ha'betarim], when the Holy One blessed be He says to Abram, Know verily that your offspring shall be a ger in a land not their own (Bereishit 15:13).
When Abraham turns to the Hittites to ask them to apportion some land for Sarah's grave, he says: I am a ger and resident with you, give me a burial site among you, and I shall bury my dead from before me (Bereishit 23:4).
The ger mentioned in Bereishit is certainly a stranger who continues to preserve his ethnic and cultural identity.
When Moses' oldest son, Gershom, was born, the Torah explicates his name's meaning: She bore a son whom he named Gershom, for he said, "I have been a ger in a strange land" (Shemot 2:22). Here too we see the word ger referring to alienation, and not to some process of conversion. Neither have we heard of any earlier process of conversion.
For the first time, in parashat Bo, in the section in which the Israelites are commanded to perform the paschal sacrifice, we find mention of the ger who must undergo circumcision in order to offer the paschal sacrifice: If a ger who dwells with you would offer the Passover to the Lord, all his males must be circumcised; then he shall be admitted to offer it; he shall then be as a citizen f the country. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it (Shemot 12:48)
Despite this, in parashat Kedoshim the Torah uses the following formulation to warn us against cheating a ger: When a ger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The ger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God (Vayikra 19:33-34).
Here it seems clear from the language of the passage that it refers to a stranger living in our midst, similar to the Israelites who were gerim [strangers] in Egypt. R. Abraham Ibn Ezra's interpretation of the passage seems to imply such a reading:
When a ger resides with you: He is mentioned after the elderly person, and the reason is that just as I warned you to respect the aged Israelite because he is powerless, so too I have warned you to respect the ger, for your power is greater than his, our since he has no power at all, since he resides in your land by your permission. (Ibn Ezra on Vayikra 19:33)
In parashat Behar, the Torah speaks explicitly of the ger and the resident:
If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though as a ger and resident, let him live by your side. (Vayikra 25:35)
If a resident and ger among you has prospered, and your kinsman living in straits, comes under his authority and gives himself over to the ger and resident among you, or to an offshoot of a ger's family. (Vayikra 25:47)
Indeed, the RaMBaM rules that we must sustain the ger toshav:
It is forbidden to an Israelite to give a free-gift to an idolater, but he may give it to a ger toshav, for it says, give it to the ger within your gates and he shall eat it, or sell it to a foreigner - as a sale, not as a gift. But it may be given to a ger toshav either through sale or as a gift because you are commanded to sustain him, for it is sad, a ger and resident, let him live by your side. (MishnehTorah Hilkhot Zekhiyah U'Matanah 3:11)
R. Hayyim ben Atar explains the importance of this commandment in his commentary on the Torah, Or HaHayyim:
A ger and a resident...: The point of his claim is based upon what the RaMBaM wrote in chapter three of Hilkhot Zekhiyah U'Matanah: "He may give it to a ger toshav, for it says, give it to theger within your gates and he shall eat it, or sell it to a foreigner." You must know that all of our holy Torah is rational, particularly in connection to matters of earthly governance. Rationality requires that the residents of the land sustain a person who is a ger and resident among them, giving him a free gift, just as we do. That is [the point of] Abraham's claim, I am a ger and resident, give me. He was careful to specify ger, and not merely resident, in order to say, "Even though I am a ger and not one of you, even so, I am still a resident..." (Or HaHayyim 23:4)
The ger is mentioned twice in the book of Bamidbar in connection with the sacrifices. In our parasha:
And if a ger who resides with you would offer a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, he must offer it in accordance with the rules and rites of the Passover sacrifice. There shall be one law for you, whether ger or citizen of the country. (Bamidbar 9:14)
And in the parasha of Shelah:
And when, throughout your generations, a ger who has taken up residence with you, or one who lives among you, would present an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord - as you do, so shall he do. (Bamibar 15:14)
The Sages and most of the commentators say that our parasha and Shelah both refer to a ger tzedek. On the other hand, R. Saadya Gaon writes:
A ger who has taken up residence : A ger who has converted and entered the religion, or who lives among you throughout their generations, and he comes to make an offering, wanting it to be acceptable and desirable before the Lord. (R. Saadya Gaon on Bamidbar 15:14)
It seems, therefore, that understanding the notion of the biblical ger is a complex affair.
On the one hand, it is clear that we owe moral and religious duties towards the ger who dwells among us, who is known to the Sages as a ger toshav. We are commanded to sustain him, to treat him justly, and it is prohibited to cheat him.
This command is rooted in the memory of the exodus from Egypt: We have experienced slavery and the life of the stranger, and so we can understand the ger's sensitivities and vulnerability. That historical memory demands of us ethical and just behavior towards the members of other nations who dwell among us. True, there is some problem in the halakhic literature regarding the technical definition of a gertoshav. However, HaRav Herzog produced an interesting responsa calling for a renewed discussion of the topic. Since we are not presently engaged in a halakhic investigation, there is no need to enter into those details.
On the other hand, when it is a matter of the ger's participation in the paschal sacrifice, he is required to enter the covenant, since no uncircumcised person may eat of it.
The RaMBaN's offers an especially interesting comment on the verse from our parasha dealing with the ger and the paschal sacrifice:
The point of a ger who has taken up residence is to command the gerim regarding the Passover taking place in the wilderness when the Israelites were commanded about it. It could be that the passage in the parasha of Bo and if a ger lives among you and made the Passover offering (Shemot 12:48) refers to the Passover of Egypt, as I explained there (verse 43), and it meant that thegerim who were leaving Egypt as part of the mixed multitude should make the Passover since they were also involved in that miracle, but [it would seem,] those who converted afterwards in the desert or in the Land of Israel would not be required to make the Passover offering, since neither they or their fathers belong to the category of [those who can say] and you took us out from there(Devarim 6:23). That is why it was necessary to [specifically] obligate them here to observe the Passover in the desert and in the Land. (RaMBaN on Bamidbar 9:14)
The RaMBaN understands that the mixed multitude, that is to say, the gentiles who left Egypt together with the Israelites, were obligated to perform the make the first Passover offering, because they were participants in the experience of redemption together with the Israelites.
A shared lot allows members of another nation feel that they are partners in the same process. Afterwards, when later generations had not personally experienced the exodus from Egypt, the sharing of collective memory was no longer based upon biology, but rather upon voluntary entry into the covenant.
The complicated realities of the State of Israel and the Land of Israel require us to deal with the issue of historical memories and narratives which are not jointly held by Jewish and gentile residents, together with the demand of morality and Torah for equality and justice that do not discriminate between Jew and stranger. Perhaps this is the challenge of a society aspiring to be Jewish and democratic.
Pinchas Leiser, editor of Shabbat Shalom, is a psychologist.