Thought for the Week: Jacob’s Ladder and Conversion

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 22 November 2012

Yesterday I accompanied two members of Alyth’s conversion programme as they came before a Beit Din, and then went to the Mikveh to finally acquire Jewish status.  As always, the experience was an extraordinary privilege.  It is one of the highlights of our work as rabbis to be with converts on their journey into Judaism, to enable passionate and sincere people to undergo the unique transformation of identity and status, and to take a full place in our community.

At first glance this work has very little to do with this week’s Torah portion, Jacob’s vision of a ladder reaching up to heaven.  However, the early Rabbis were ever alert to the use of language in the Torah, and they made a link.  After his vision, Jacob bargains with God, requesting “food to eat and clothing to wear”, in return for which Jacob would acknowledge God as his God. A similar phrase is found in Deuteronomy, where we are told that we should care for the stranger, because God cares for strangers, providing them with food and clothing.

The rabbis linked our obligations to the convert not only to the divine care shown to the stranger but even to the divine relationship with the patriarchs – indeed, with the patriarch after whom we, Israel, are named.  It is built into the very fabric of our formative story that we should look after those who join us, and that they, too, become Israel. The rabbis took this verse one step further.  A story about the ancient convert Akilas, (elsewhere known as Onkelos) tells that he visited the sage Rabbi Joshua, who taught him that the text isn’t really about physical sustenance.  Rather, he says, “bread” actually refers to the Torah (as in a verse in Proverbs in which Wisdom (Torah) says, “Come, eat of my bread”) while “clothing” means the cloak of a Torah scholar.

In his vow, Jacob promises, “If God is with me, if God protects me and gives me food to eat and clothing to wear… Then Adonai shall be my God”. If we are with those who seek to join us, if we give them not only food and clothing, a physical welcome, but spiritual sustenance and the gift of Torah – then Adonai can be their God too.