In this letter, we will discuss an ancient prayer which includes a mention of the following groups: tzadikim, chassidim, elders of Your people, and gerei tzedek:
As we discussed, the term “tzadikim” refers to righteous individuals who are devoted to the Torah principle of “tzedek” – the Divine plan for creation whereby everyone and everything receive their due.
The term “chassidim” is an ancient biblical term for those who are lovingly devoted to Divine service, going beyond the minimum requirements of the Torah. An example of this term appears in the following statement in the Book of Psalms: “Sing to Hashem a new song; His praise is in the congregation of chassidim” (Psalm 159:1).
The term “elders of Your people” is a reference in our prayers to the Torah sages who guide Israel, the people chosen by Hashem to serve as a model of the Divine teachings. Within our tradition, even a young sage is called an “elder”, and the Talmud teaches that an elder is one who has acquired wisdom (Kiddushin 32b). An example of how the term “elders” refers to sages can be found in the verse where Hashem tells Moshe to appoint a supreme court of seventy “elders” to assist him in leading and judging the people (Numbers 11:16).
“Gerei Tzedek” are the converts who join our people through committing themselves to the Torah’s path of mitzvos, which is a path of tzedek. As King David proclaimed,“All Your mitzvos are tzedek” (Psalm 119:172). See our previous letter, The Ger Tzedek (Letter 69), for additional information.
At the beginning of the Second Temple period, the members of the “Great Assembly” – a gathering of leading sages and the last of the prophets – composed the basic prayer service that we have today, including the series of weekday blessings known as “Shemoneh Esrei” – the highlight of the daily prayer service. One of these blessings includes a prayer for the welfare of converts, and the following is an excerpt from this blessing:
“On the tzadikim, on the chassidim, on the elders of your people the Family of Israel, on the remnant of their scholars, on the gerei tzedek, and on ourselves – may Your compassion be aroused, Hashem, our God, and give goodly reward to all who sincerely trust in Your Name.”
In the above prayer from the Shemoneh Esrei, the mention of the tzadikim, chassidim, and elders is followed by a mention of the converts. The Talmud (Megillah 17b), in its discussion of this prayer, states there is a precedent in the Torah for this juxtaposition, and the Talmud cites the following example: It is written, “You shall honor the presence of an elder” (Leviticus 19:32), and the next verse states: “When a convert dwells among you in your land, do not harass him” (19:33).
What does the convert have in common with the elders and Torah scholars? One answer is the love of Torah, for the sincere convert – the ger tzedek – converts because of a love for the Torah and its path of mitzvos. Another answer is because they all feel like “strangers” in this world. For example, King David was a Torah sage who said to Hashem, “Oh, how I love Your Torah! All day long it is my conversation” (Psalm 119:97); yet, he also said:
“I am a stranger upon earth; hide not Your mitzvos from me.” (Psalm 119:19)
In Letter 68 – The “Stranger” – I offered the following explanation of why David felt like a stranger on earth:
In the above verse, David is expressing the yearning of his soul. The soul is a spiritual entity – a spark of the Divine essence; however, the spiritual soul is placed within a physical body on a physical earth. It is therefore not surprising that those who are aware of their spiritual souls may initially feel like gerim – strangers – on this earth. Our Creator, however, has given us through the Torah a holistic path of mitzvos – Divine mandates – which enable us to sanctify every aspect of our physical existence on this earth. For example, we have mitzvos which sanctify the way we eat, the way we have sexual relations, the way we work the earth, and the way we engage in commerce. Through this holistic path of mitzvos, the physical become spiritual through being consecrated for a higher Divine purpose; thus, our souls can feel more at home on earth. This is why David prayed, “I am a stranger upon earth; hide not Your mitzvos from me.”
The convert has a very sensitive soul, and like David, the convert feels like a stranger upon earth. The convert is therefore attracted to the mitzvos of the Torah path which sanctify every aspect of earthly existence, for like David, the convert seeks to feel more at home on earth.
I will conclude this letter with the following story about a sage and a convert:
The Chazon Ish was a leading Torah sage who lived in Bnei Brak, Israel. It was the custom of this elderly sage to celebrate Simchas Torah in the study hall of the Ponovezh Yeshiva, where the teachers and students joyfully dance with the Torah to lively spiritual nigunim (melodies). One Simchas Torah, when the Chazon Ish left the yeshiva to go home, he met a man weeping openly in the street. The Chazon Ish was concerned, and the man told the Chazon Ish that he was a ger tzedek; however, he felt that some of his fellow-Jews thought little of him and treated him as an outcast. The Chazon Ish said to him, “I invite his honor to sing a nigun.” The ger tzedek obliged and began singing in a robust voice. There, in the street, the Chazon Ish danced to the tune in front of the ger tzedek as one would dance before a bride and a groom at a wedding. The spirits of the ger tzedek were revived.
Have a Good, Sweet, and Uplifting Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
A Related Teaching and Comments:
1. In Pirkei Avos (6:6), it states that the Torah is acquired through 48 attributes, and one of these attributes is “beloved” – one who is dearly loved. My rebbe, Rav Aharon Feldman, explains this teaching in the following manner: In order to acquire Torah, one must realize that one is the beloved of Hashem! Each of us is dearly loved by Hashem, and as we explained in the previous letter, this is especially true for the convert.
2. “Shemoneh Esrei” by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer is published by ArtScroll:www.artscroll.com .
3. The story about the Chazon Ish appears in the biography, “The Chazon Ish,” by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman, published by Artscroll.