The Convert, the Orphan, the Widow… and Pesach

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14 Mar 2018

In Parshas Ki’tzeseh is says lo sateh mishpat ger, yasom v’lo sachvol beged almana. V’zocharta ke eved hayisah b’mitzraim. “You shall not pervert the judgment of a convert or orphan, and you shall not take the garment of a widow as a pledge. You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt,” and the pasuk concludes veyifdicha Hashem Elokecha mesham, al kane anochi metzavcha laasos es hadovor hazeh “and Hashem, your God, redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this thing.”

The Torah asks us to remember our slavery in Egypt to help us empathize and understand the plight of the ger, yasom and almana, the convert, the orphan and the widow – and for us to act morally and kindly to them.

But why does the torah pick ger, yasom and almana – why not an ani and evyon, the poor and the destitute?  What do ger, yasom and almana have in common that they were classified as a group, and why are they, connected to the exodus from Egypt?

Now, while we are asking questions – why not ask the bigger question?

In our prayers, we say again and again the phrase “zecher leyetzias Mitzrayim – in memory of the exodus from Egypt. Why remember the exodus from Egypt; was not the exodus but a stepping stone to the major event – Matan Torah?  The receiving of the Torah.

Matan Torah is the high point of our history. Our faith is built on it – it is our life.  Should we not remember and refer to it, rather then Yetziyas Mitzrayim?

Perhaps the answer to all these questions lie in answering and understanding the first question – The ger, yasom and almanac, why are they grouped together and what is their relationship with yetzias Mitzrayim?

The ger, yasom, and almana all share one major characteristic – the affliction of loss of status.  Unfairly, indirectly, society has stigmatized the ger, yasom and almana.

The ger – the convert – having left his birth religion and his prior society is confronted by his adopted society. Without any yichus – a familial support system, he is an outsider. From one day to another – transformed – he experiences a sudden drop in status.

The yasom  – the orphan . In losing a parent, or parents, he moves from being part of a complete family unit, to a fractured one. He stands out among his peers, who still have a complete family. The loss is traumatic – and he suffers a loss of status.

The almana – the widow – When women are widowed they often experience the transition from being part of a couple, associating with other couples, to suddenly becoming a single among couples. Unfortunately, they suffer because of it. Their personal loss becomes a social loss as well.

The plight of the ger, yasom and almana teaches us about loss. It teaches us about vulnerability. Vulnerability is part of the religious experience. We are all vulnerable and dependent upon God’s help.

The exile in Egypt and the redemption, form the moral and religious underpinnings of our Jewish religious existence. The rabbis refer to the exile as the kur habarzel, the purifying blast furnace. The furnace, that removes impurities, incrustations, and all that extra baggage. The generation that was redeemed from Egypt, limited as they were, nevertheless, were pure, unencumbered and dependent upon God. They were in a spiritual condition to receive the Torah.

One of the important elements of that spiritual condition is the concept of temporary, which is a key feature of vulnerability.

Temporary is at the center of the yetzeas Mitzrayim experience. The Matzah the unleavened bread was baked on the run. The Mana that came down in the desert was portioned, so that it was just enough for that day, and only for that day. One could not build a business, a distribution system and amass a fortune.

The Succah – those temporary huts where the Jews lived in the desert were – by definition – temporary dwellings. If the succah had permanent elements in it, it was not a succah. As we eat, and live in the succah we remember the plight of our ancestors, the experience of temporary, vulnerability, and our dependence upon God.

Modern times have added levels of complexity. So much so that it is difficult to feel our vulnerability. Technology, economics, and business create a level of complexity shielding us – forming a barrier, and preventing us from experiencing the immediacy of God’s nature. Previously one was more directly dependent upon favorable agricultural conditions for his existence. He prayed for rain and abundant crops. He could sense his vulnerability and his dependence on God.

We realize that ultimately, we are not self sustaining, that life is temporary, that our good fortune – like the ger, yasom and almana can change.

Education, academic achievement, and professional accomplishments, can also make it difficult to realize our relationship to God.

Early in the Hagaddah it says afilu kulanu chachmim, kulanu nevonim, kulanum yodim es hatorah, mitzvah alenu lesaper beyetzeas mitzrayim. Even though we are all wise, we are all knowledgeable, we are all experienced, and we all know the Torah – we are still required to retell the story of the exodus from Egypt.

Now one would think that these wise people would somehow be exempt – as one would be exempt from a prerequisite course. But, on the contrary, it seems that their very knowledge and accomplishments make the need to recall Yetzeas Mitzrayim even more important.  It is almost as if the author is warning his peers of the dangers that often trap the educated and privileged.

The Talmud recognizes the challenges of the educated and privileged. In Mesechta Succah, it says kol hagadol mechaveo yetziro gadol memenu. “Whoever is greater than his friend has a yetzer hara, an evil inclination that is bigger.”  Now that does not mean that bigger is quantitatively bigger. It means his yetzer is more sophisticated. His temptations are more subtle and complex – to match his greater stature.

It is, for this reason, we are asked to put aside intellectualism, complexities and beauracracies and focus on feeling – the man to God relationship simple and basic.

The Pesach story, simple and straight forward, is a response to a child’s four direct questions. We have to be reminded that the Pesach experience is not a cerebral experience. It is a visceral one. We have to taste the simplicity of the Matzah, to feel life on the run. We have to bite into the moror to feel the bitterness. We have to eat the charoses, to feel the drudgery of our ancestors. We have to live it, feel it, just as if we were there.

Pesach gives us the opportunity to go into our fields and cut down the overgrowth. To expose that which is basic and true, which is the man to God relationship. And to understand the source of our sustenance, and achievement.

Pesach asks us to rid ourselves of that chametz which over time has been allowed to grow, become complex, distorted and incrusted.

We must clean it out, burn it from our homes, our minds, and our hearts.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could Peel off our incrustations; Cast off our complexities; Strip off our hubris – And bask in the warmth of His Shechina.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.