In this week’s parasha we read about the case of someone who wrongs his fellow human being. The language of the Torah is rather vague about exactly what the wrong is – ‘ki yaasu mi-kol chatot ha-adam, lim’ol ma’al bAdonai’ – ‘When a person sins against someone, trespassing against the Lord’. So the commentators, ever alert to similarities and differences across the Torah, solve the mystery by noting that the verse is very similar in its language to the first half of a verse in the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus). That verse also uses the words ‘chet‘ (the singular of chatot) and ‘ma’al‘ in a similar way.
Only, like a crossword puzzle, the verse in Vayikra goes on to specify the offence – robbery and fraud. As further proof, both our passage here and the passage in Vayikra specify the same penalty: the criminal must repay the value of the loss, plus a penalty of 20%. Aha, say the commentators. So clearly this verse here in our parasha also refers to robbery and fraud! But of course, the solution creates its own problem: why is the verse in our parasha necessary, if we already have the passage in Vayikra?
The commentators read on further, and find that our passage has one different element. It considers the case where the wronged person has died and moreover has no kinsman to whom the restitution can be made. In that case, rules our parasha, the criminal must pay the money ‘to the Lord, to the Kohen’, i.e. to the Temple.
So far, so clear. But the Rabbis (in a passage in the Talmud) go further, asking rhetorically, ‘Can you find anyone in Israel who has no kinsman whatsoever?’ So to whom was the passage referring? They suggest the following solution. Laws like this only apply to interactions between Jews, so therefore the subject must be someone who is themselves a Jew, but whose relatives are not: namely a convert. The convert is entitled to the compensation, but once he is dead, his non-Jewish relatives cannot act as his representatives. Hence special provision needs to be made for justice to be rendered to converts.
A number of commentators take the opportunity to pay specific respect to converts at this point. The commentator Chizkuni (Hezekiah ben Manoah, c. 1220-c.1260) considers the language of the verse that talks about paying compensation ‘to God’ if the convert has died, and notes that ‘God is considered to be the ‘parent’ of the convert’.
The commentator Ovadia Sforno (c. 1470-c. 1550) explains that the offence of stealing from a convert deserves the serious description of ‘ma’al’ because it makes such a bad impression for a convert, who has voluntarily chosen to join the Jewish people, to see someone born into Jewishness ignoring the basic value of honesty in this way. It is true that our tradition has historically discouraged converts, but it is also true that it has also greatly respected those who pressed on, despite the original discouragement, and joined us.
Daniel Oppenheimer is a member of New North London Synagogue and a founder of its Assif minyan