Loving the Convert
"...[God] loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. You must also show love toward the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Deut. 10:18-19)
The Torah informs us of God's great love for the ger (convert). Since we are required to emulate God, it follows that we must also love the convert. Why, then, is it necessary to add, "for you were gerim in Egypt?"
Maimonides (Responsa No. 369) points out that the Torah commands us to respect and honor our parents and obey a prophet, but it does not command us to love them. Yet we are commanded to love the convert just as we are commanded to love God. To understand this we must understand the Torah concept of love.
The numerical value of "love" is the same as "one." Love is the product of unity between individuals, a recognition of a commonality and affinity. In our relationship to God this commonality is intrinsic, since we are created in God's image. Likewise, we share common responsibilities and goals with our fellow Jew. He is our peer in Torah and mitzvot. Parents and spouses, however, aside from the intrinsic commonality they share as Jews, may have nothing else in common.
Of course we must work to develop and nurture an affinity and commonality in the latter relationships. Love of a parent is an enhancement of honor; love of a spouse is a rabbinical directive (Maimonides, Ishus 15:19). And most certainly it is an ideal to love and honor the righteous. However, the Torah did not command us to create an affinity where it does not exist intrinsically. Rather, where such an affinity exists naturally, the Torah commands us to develop it.
STUDENT OF ABRAHAM
Maimonides, in the aforementioned response, writes to a convert whose mentor insulted him and called him a fool for asking a legitimate question:
...That which he called you a fool is very perplexing. One who left his father and mother, and his birthplace, and his nation, which is now in power, whose heart and mind led him to cling to a nation that is today detested by the nations of the world, ruled over by slaves, and to recognize and understand that their religion is the true and righteous one; one who understood the ways of Israel, and pursued God, and entered the path of holiness, and entered under the wings of the Divine presence, and sat at the dust of the feet of Moses, the master of all prophets; one who desires God's mitzvot, whose heart inspires him to draw close to bask in the light of life, and to ascend to the level of angels, to rejoice and take pleasure in the rapture of the righteous; one who cast out this mundane world from his heart and did not follow vain and idle things - is a person who reached this lofty stature to be called a fool?
God has not designated you a fool, but rather an intelligent and wise and understanding individual, who proceeds on proper paths, the student of Abraham, who likewise left his father and birthplace to follow God. May He Who blessed Abraham, and rewarded him in this world and the next world, bless and reward you properly in this world and the next. May He lengthen your days, so that you will be able to teach God's laws to His congregation, and may you merit to see all the consolations in store for Israel in the future, and may the good that God will do for us also devolve upon you, for God has spoken good concerning Israel.
The convert has discovered on his own what the Jew was born with. Yet, the Sages tell us (Yevamos 48b), a convert sometimes experiences hardships after the conversion due to the fact that he procrastinated in converting. The Chida explains that every convert has an innate spark of holiness that is suppressed and lies dormant until he becomes aware of it and converts. He procrastinated in not acting upon that spark.
The famous convert and martyr, Avraham ben Avraham, posited that while each nation rejected the Torah when God offered it to them, there was a minority that was willing to accept the Torah. It is the descendants of that minority who eventually convert.
Through a proper halachic conversion, the convert transforms himself into a new individual. That spark of holiness is transformed into a Jewish soul and replaces his previous identity as a non-Jew. He is a newborn person with no halachic connection to his past.
God shows particular love and solicitude for the convert, feeding and clothing him. Food is man's basic necessity. Out of recognition of the elevated essence of the convert, God provides his essential necessities. Clothing represents one's honor. By providing clothing, God honors the convert.
STRANGERS IN EGYPT
On the one hand, we share an intrinsic affinity with that which the convert chose and accepted upon himself. Nevertheless, it is difficult to relate to the convert with a sense of total affinity, since his embrace of Torah and mitzvot was voluntary and ours was by birth. Therefore the Torah could not merely exhort us to emulate God in loving the convert, since there is an impediment to actually fulfilling this command. Thus the Torah adds, "for you were gerim in Egypt."
We can appreciate and identify with the convert, for in our national experience we also were quasi-gerim, when we left Egypt and accepted the Torah. Although we were already potentially Jews from the time of Abraham, and all that had to be done was bring out the potential that already existed at Sinai (see Gur Aryeh to Genesis 46:10); we experienced at Sinai a conversion, an acceptance of Torah and mitzvot not binding upon us at birth. Because we share that experience with the convert, we can be commanded to recognize and enhance that commonality.
The Sages comment (Yevamos 47a) that converts are as difficult for the Jewish people as spachas (an affliction of the skin). On the one hand, non-Jews who convert for ulterior motives, who basically masquerade as Jews, are a plague and sickness to the Jewish people.
On the other hand, Jews who convert for the reasons Maimonides describes and who undergo a halachic conversion are a pleasant affliction for the Jewish people. Just as tzora'as (skin affliction) is a lesson to goad one to repent and improve, the devotion and meticulous observance of mitzvot of a true convert are an indictment of those born Jews who are not as devoted, meticulous or appreciative of their heritage.