How welcoming should we be to converts? And what approach should we take with young Jews who are ambivalent about their commitment to Torah and mitzvot? One commentary on parshat Bo provides a refreshing perspective on these questions.
Parshat Bo contains the laws of the Passover sacrifice, and the Sefer HaChinuch uses this as an opportunity to explain a principle about keeping mitzvot. When the Torah commands us not to break the bones of the korban Pesach the Sefer Hachinuch famously comments: “after one’s actions, follows the heart.” Meaning, that even if a person has negative thoughts or lack of motivation, by doing good and doing mitzvot – actions or habits, no matter how small and whether or not one understands them – his/her thoughts will be stirred toward positive feelings and enthusiasm toward Torah and faith in God. This relates to the Sefer Hachinuch’s purpose as a halakhic commentary of unknown authorship from 13th century Spain which provides meaning for the mitzvot. In the introduction he writes that one impetus for this commentary was to inspire his son and friends and “awaken their hearts.”
A similar approach is taken to converts by Hillel in the Talmud, when he is approached by 3 non-Jews who wished to convert but with a significant caveat. One wouldn’t accept the oral Torah, another would convert on the condition that he be appointed kohen gadol and the third wanted the Torah to be taught “on one foot.” Each time Hillel converted them and after they were welcomed they began to observe and learn. This led them to correct their original demands and reinforced Hillel’s decision.
The message of Sefer HaChinuch and Hillel: sometimes the way to Torah and God is through accepting ambivalence and partial commitment. Just as this was a successful approach historically, it is even more relevant today. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson