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I Just Want to Drink My Tea

S ipping a nice hot cup of ginger
tea is my favorite way to end
a Shabbat meal, regardless of
the time of year. I was once a guest
at someone’s Shabbat table sipping
Mrs. Leah Nagarpowers
Stern College for Women Class of 2014
my tea, when the conversation Teacher, Magen David Yeshivah, Brooklyn, NY
turned to non-kosher food trends.
The topic seems a bit random but be a pregnant pause until I give some ‫אם היה בעל תשובה לא יאמר לו זכור מעשיך‬
I promise there was a context to it. rushed answer. ‫הראשונים אם הוא בן גרים לא יאמר לו זכור‬
Anyway, I was just sitting in my seat ‫ כ) וגר לא‬,‫מעשה אבותיך שנאמר (שמות כב‬
and enjoying the spicy aroma of my Before I describe where the
conversation tends to go from there .‫תונה ולא תלחצנו‬
brew when, yet again, someone asked If one is a baal teshuva, someone cannot
my opinion on a popular non-kosher I would like to bring in the Shelah,
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz. In Shnei say to him, “Remember your earlier
restaurant. Before I could open my actions,” and if one is a child of converts,
mouth, someone else piped up and Luchot HaBrit he spends some time
discussing the phrase “When a you cannot say to him, “Remember the
asked how it is that I could have an actions of your ancestors,” because the
opinion to begin with. Not missing stranger (convert) lives among you”
from Vayikra 19:33, and how it is verse says, “And you shall not mistreat
a beat, I followed with my typical nor oppress” (Shemot 22:20).
response, “Because I’m a baalat meant to serve as a literary allusion to
Avraham. He explains that the reason These statements from the Mishna are
teshuva,” a line I’ve been using for already fairly clear: don’t remind baalei
years at this point. Hashem put this allusion in the Torah
is to remind us not to remind others teshuva or converts about their past.
Then came the typical questions: Why of their potentially sordid pasts when But the Gemara goes a step further in
did you become frum? Was it hard we have our own to deal with. He its discussion of the Mishna. On the
to keep Shabbat? What do you miss goes on to remind us that B’nei Yisrael same page, the Gemara discusses an
from before? I’ve learned how to give committed acts of avodah zarah and actual convert, explaining:
canned answers to these questions other aveirot while in Egypt and that ‫אם היה גר ובא ללמוד תורה אל יאמר לו פה‬
that at this point require little to no because of this, we have no right to ‫שאכל נבילות וטריפות שקצים ורמשים בא‬
thought and satisfy the inquiries fairly remind a convert of his or her prior .‫ללמוד תורה שנאמרה מפי הגבורה‬
quickly. Inevitably there was one acts. If someone is a convert and he came
person who was more curious than to study Torah, someone cannot say to
everyone else and just couldn’t let The Talmud Bavli in Masechet
Bava Metzia page 58b discusses a him, “Does the mouth that consumed
the topic go. It tends to be the case non-kosher carcasses, wounded animals,
that someone will then proceed to Mishna detailing the prohibition of
ona’at devarim — causing someone disgusting creatures, and creeping
poke at my defenses and ask more animals come to study the Torah
personal questions about my family. emotional suffering — and how
that can be done through various that was given over by the mouth of
Sometimes someone else will get Hashem?”
involved and change the subject, but statements. One of the examples the
Mishna gives refers to baalei teshuva: Now most people, being decent and
more often than not there will instead

Special Symposium • Shavuot 5777

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777
kind, would never think of saying with questions I hear the most celebrate Shavuot, we take time to
something like what the Gemara is common comment of all, “You’re so think about how we could be more
describing to anyone. I think that the inspirational! Can you share your sensitive towards converts and baalei
rabbis of the Gemara also believed story?” teshuva. Not just because Megillat
that most people were decent and Rut discusses the famous convert of
Now, to people who aren’t converts
kind and didn’t need to give mussar the same name but because when
or baalei teshuva that last comment
telling people not to make such the story was over, Rut went on
may seem harmless, but I would like
statements. The rabbis were possibly to just be Rut, a regular shomeret
to argue otherwise. When someone
using such an extreme example to mitzvah member of the tribe. Stories
becomes a baal teshuva or a convert
illustrate a different point about such as Rut’s can definitely be a
he or she spends a certain amount of
how it feels for the convert in this source of inspiration, but as we seek
time learning how to fit in to the frum
situation. If you were in this convert’s out inspiration, we also need to be
community. What to say when, how
shoes, how would you feel? Attacked? sensitive to the impact it has on
to dress, what hechsherim to look for,
Embarrassed? Isolated? Inferior? I others. I, and many, many others,
these are all things we have to navigate
believe the rabbis would also apply don’t want to be treated as a separate
as we find our place in the religious
this thinking to other questions posed group that the rest of the community
world.1 After this transitional period
to converts that seem to be more finds “inspiration” from. We just want
we just want to be accepted like any
pareve. Questions like, Why did you to bake challah, daven in a minyan,
other frum from birth person (FFB).
convert? Was it hard to keep Shabbat? learn Torah, and enjoy a night out like
In other words, we want to “pass.”
What do you miss from before? anyone else. So please, don’t make
Once we have integrated into Modern
If you have been following me so far, us pay for our supper by harassing us
Orthodox society, we don’t want
then you can already see where that with questions. We just want to drink
others to remind us of our past. Can
conversation I was describing usually our tea.
you imagine someone reminding you
goes. It comes out that I’m a convert of a car accident you had at 16 after
(surprise!) and then the questions you were well into your 20’s? Now Endnotes
become increasingly more invasive. imagine that happening when you’re
1 I encourage you to read Becoming Frum:
At this point I tend to do one of two surrounded by strangers who want How Newcomers Learn the Language and
things, feign fatigue or steel myself to ask all sorts of probing questions Culture of Orthodox Judaism by Dr. Sarah
with another cup of ginger tea. After about the incident, over 10 years later. Bunin Benor for more information on this
about 10 minutes of being peppered transition.
I would like to suggest that as we

The Choice of the Convert as a Source of Inspiration
Even without knowing a person’s particular story, we can individual didn’t see any of that and came to refine himself/
be inspired by the very choice to become Jewish. The herself to the Holy One Blessed Be He and accepted upon
Midrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha no. 6 states: himself/herself, the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom. Is there
‫א"ל ר"ש בן לקיש חביב הגר לפני הקב"ה מן אותן אוכלוסין שעמדו‬ anything more precious than this?
‫ למה שכל אותן אוכלוסין אלולי שראו הקולות והלפידים‬,‫על הר סיני‬ R. Yehonatan Eibeschitz, Yearot Devash no. 1, writes that
‫וברקים וההרים רועשים וקול שופרות לא קבלו עליהם מלכות‬ when we recite the beracha of Al HaTzaddikim (for the
‫ וזה לא ראה אחד מכולם ובא ומשלים עצמו להקב"ה וקבל‬,‫שמים‬ righteous), we should specifically have in mind to fulfill
.‫עליו עול מלכות שמים יש חביב מזה‬ the mitzvah to love the convert. In today’s day and age
Reish Lakish responded: the convert is more precious before when the spirit of the times is to live a life free of any
the Holy One, Blessed Be He than the population that stood ethical systems, and this individual decides to accept
at Mount Sinai. Why? Because if that population didn’t the yoke of mitzvot, this individual is comparable to
see the sounds, the flames, the thunder, the trembling of the Avraham Avinu who discovered God on his own.
mountains and the sound of the shofars, they wouldn’t have Torah To Go Editors
accepted upon themselves the Heavenly Kingdom. This

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777