Parashat Vayeilech: Finding Shem Over There
Rabbi David Katz
In this week’s Torah Portion of Vayeilech Hashem addresses a unique group of six distinct categories amongst the Greater Jewish Nation: Priests, Elders, Men, Women, Youths, and “Gerim” [“converts or “potential” converts in theory.] The setting and tone of the nationwide announcement in this shortened Torah Portion can be found in the verses of Devarim 31:10-13: “Moses commanded them, saying “at the end of seven years, at the time of the Sabbatical year, during the Succos festival, when all Israel comes to appear before Hashem, your God, in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears, Gather together the people – the men, the women, and the small children, and your stranger [Ger] who is in your gates - so that they will hear and so that that they will learn, and they shall Fear Hashem Your God, and be careful to perform all the words of this Torah. And their children who do not know – they shall hear and they shall learn to Fear Hashem Your God, all the days that you live on the Land to which you are crossing the Jordan, to possess it There.” The points of interest that resonate the loudest in this passage is the usage of the “Ger” [convert/stranger/dweller] in its association with the Nation of Israel, and the culmination of the verses reaching a climax of “crossing the Jordan” as “the inheritance is Over There.” The Ger is clearly the Noahide / Ger Toshav – Tzedek as we will explain and the inheritance is direct hint at the association of Shem and Ever [the forefathers in Torah], as the Hebrew and Bible commentaries support these revelations that compose the simple meaning in the text. The “understanding of the matter within the matter”, or “Pilpul” [spice of Torah, an expression of the Torah of Shem] is the concept that even to arrive at a “simple meaning” [“Pshat” in Hebrew of the inner dimension of Torah learning deemed: P’ar’d’es (Orchard), which is an acronym for the Simple meaning, along with hints, allegory, and secrets] going through a revelation is in of itself a revelation! We see in this week’s Parsha that the Simple Meaning requires scholarship and Pilpul, and intentionally it seems this involves the revelation of the Torah of Shem – in more than one way.
The Bible commentator Even Ezra on our verse Devarim 31:13 makes a few key distinctions in the verse, that turn one’s attention to the Noahides and Shem into the next verse: “Gather the Nation, the Men, the Women, the Youths, the Gerim that are in your gates, so that they will hear and so that they will learn and Fear Hashem your God, and you will guard to perform all the words of this Torah.”
When the Torah says “so that you shall learn”, the Even Ezra [who is assuming the command to listen has fallen on those who have a sufficient knowledge of Torah] states three scenarios that support the notion that the “Ger” of our verse is of quite clarity a reference to the Ger Toshav – Tzedek [Noahide who desires to live amongst/in Israel and has a potential inclination to become righteous]. These scenarios in reference to the Ger are: The Shabbat, his “conversion” [or non-conversion], and his knowledge level.
The verse says that at the end of the 7-year cycle in the Land [“Shmittah, the 7th year where the Land has a rest and Torah Law caters to this] we must gather the Nation [including the Ger!] and read the entire Torah at the location of the Future Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Even Ezra then states, not just today or this year, but every year we must learn the whole Torah, every day – even Shabbat! This would imply that the Ger is in fact a Ger Toshav/Tzedek, as this is consistent with the reference of the Ger Tzedek and his affiliation with Shabbat in Devarim 5:14, the second rendition of the 10 Commandments in the Torah. Here [in conjunction with the Even Ezra that he is specifically referring to the reference of “Ger” in the verse] the Even Ezra is clearly stating that Torah learning for the Ger must be constant, even of and on Shabbat! The Prophets speak about how the Shabbat Learning of the Ger is the deep secret and source of his relaxation of his day to be with God, i.e. the Shabbat.
The second scenario that elucidates our Ger spoken of here, is the essence of the Even Ezra here, as he says, “(in relation to the Ger’s hearing the Torah) perhaps he will want to convert.” From hearing the Torah, the message of the commentary here is that he will fulfill the rest of the verse in that he will then immediately seek to learn more Torah and come to Fear God. The basis of all conversion is the Fear of God, [coupled with the Ger’s Love of God] and the Ger, who is a Ger Tzedek [who is IN converSION rather than having convertED] may decide that his process of being a Ger has come to a conclusion, and that now he feels that he has reached a destination in his process of returning to God. This would be a conversion to Judaism, one that the Even Ezra mentions based on the details of the verse. One must always keep in mind the inner meaning of the commentary here, in that he uses the word, “Perhaps” – meaning maybe he will convert and maybe he won’t. There is no command, pressure, or inclination either way, as it is simply a possibility that might arise from this type of reading the Torah and his association with the Nation of Israel in the Temple where Unity is as its maximum influence. [*For a later note, if he does not seek to convert, he may find that he reaches a destination in any case, as will be explained at the end of this article in connection with “crossing (the River) There” – the secret of Shem and Ever.]
The third scenario of the Even Ezra is that by hearing the Torah [the Ger], he may ask of those who heard with him for Understanding, from those mentioned in the beginning of the verse [the Men and Women], and the Ger will seek out to Learn more. This additional Learning would either strengthen his righteousness as a Ger Tzedek, illuminate Holy matters such as Shabbat, or could even bring him to the grips of conversion. The usage of Ger here is “stranger”, thus the connotation is that he is engaged in a passionate return to God: from a place far and devoid of Understanding, to one of Love and Fear of God in the highest sense.
There is yet a 4th option [that was hinted at above] of a scenario of the Ger who hears Torah on the level of the sublime: and that is to reach the distant plane where a select few go to. The allegory of this place is to “cross the river.” This is what Shem did, along with Abraham and Ruth to name a few, and it is a place where one’s soul has converted from its impurity of being far from God, and enjoys the closeness of God. The Torah hints at this at the end of 31:14: “to cross over There as an inheritance” – the goal as of having Learned the Torah on this deep level. Crossing over in Hebrew is spelled as “Ever”, as in “Shem and his grandson Ever” and “There” is a name of the Heavenly Jerusalem, a derivative of Shem in Hebrew, as Shem is a Priest to God Above in this Heavenly realm.
Thus what we have found in these two verses along with the Even Ezra, is that the Ger mentioned has a whole new world opened for him when he hears the Torah on the level of the sublime: he may come to keep Shabbat, he may convert, he may utterly fall in love with learning and find his soul bound up with God on High and seek to attain levels of righteousness, like his forefather Shem before him.
Hashem desires at this unique period of time to gather what he calls the Nation, one consisting of Gerim, to unite in the Holy Temple and hear the Torah. The Kabalistic work the Bahir mentions that instruments in the Temple are channels of ascent on High in spirit, and the Arizal [Tzfat Kabbalist 1600] says that the Priests and the Levites have the ability to bring one’s spirit on High as if to stand before God, in the great secret of the “Priestly Levite.” The ultimate goal is to approach Hashem and enjoy his closeness at his Holy Temple, and allow the journey of the soul to go where it feels it needs to go: Jew and Noahide alike. As verse 31:13 hints at the many possibilities of the Ger, it is verse 14 that really resonates with Shem and Ever, the fathers of Torah, in that one can literally reach a distant Holy Place, far from being far. Everyone present in the Temple is under the influence of the Levites and the Priests who open the path to God Above, as the Torah is being read. It is there where one can potentially join or receive the Blessing of the Priest of God Above, the Righteous Priest – Shem the son of Noah! The soul has a journey; there are many paths one may take, yet it is our choice [Gerim and Jews] whether or not we desire to cross over and go There – to the Place of the Heavenly Temple while remaining on Earth. One can join the fraternity of Holiness that has been established with the same conditions since Shem son of Noah brought the Torah into the new post - flood world, one built of Kindness and Righteousness, as was entrusted to Shem, and thereby destined to be delivered to Mankind, in the name of a Torah of Truth, to be read in the Temple – a Temple that can only be built by sons of Shem. [Yoma 10a]