Vayeishev – The Formula for Righteousness

The Rabbeinu Bachye gives an introduction to each Torah portion, elaborating on a pasuk or two from Mishlei and somehow connecting it to the beginning of the Torah portion. For this week’s Torah portion of Vayeishev he quotes the pesukim: “Do not rob a poor man because he is poor, and do not crush the poor man in the gate. For the Lord will plead their cause and rob those who rob them, of life” (Mishlei 22:22, 23). Rabbeinu Bachye goes on to say that, “King Shlomo is informing us of the punishment for stealing from the underprivileged in these two pesukim. There are four categories of these types of people: (1) poor people, (2) orphans, (3) widows, and (4) converts.” (Click here for Hebrew text)
When elaborating on the fourth category the Rabbeinu Bachye says: “Converts (geirim), the Torah warns us to care for them a number of times. The Torah says, ‘And you shall not mistreat a convert, nor shall you oppress him…’ (Shemos 22:20). It warns us not to mistreat him with harmful words and not to oppress him by stealing his money because, ‘for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ Another pasuk adds another reason, ‘for you know the feelings of the convert’ (Shemos 23:9), it does not say ‘of the convert’ rather it says ‘the feelings of the convert, meaning he feels subjugated and lowly, and his eyes are always towards Hashem. The Rabbis also taught, ‘If you bump into a son of a convert don’t say to him I remember what your father use to do…, or if the convert comes to learn Torah don’t tell him, the mouth that once ate non-Kosher, how can it now come to learn Torah which was given from the mouth of the Great Holy One’ (Bava Metzia 58b).  For you were strangers in the land of Egypt and about a blemish you once had you shall not make fun of others. (Click here for Hebrew text)

We also refer to the righteous as geirim. The word ‘ger’ in Hebrew comes from the word ‘gargir’ or a piece of grain separated from its root. So to the righteous views himself alone and separated, his living quarters on earth feel only temporary. This is what King David said, ‘I am a stranger (ger) in the land do not hide your mitzvos from me’ (Tehillim 119:19). He compared himself to a sojourner (ger) ready to travel and he does not know when that time will come, and because he does not know when that time is, he must take provisions, since that time might come upon him immediately without notice. What are the provisions? They are fulfilling mitzvos; that is why King David said ‘do not hide your mitzvos from me.’

We also find that that our Forefathers were called geirim. Regarding Avraham it writes, ‘I am a stranger (ger) and an inhabitant with you’ (Breishis 23:4). Regarding Yitzchok it writes, ‘Sojourn (gur) in this land’ (Breishis 26:3). By Yaakov it writes in the first pasuk of this week’s parsha, ‘Jacob dwelt in the land of his father's sojournings (migurei), in the land of Canaan’ (Breishis 27:1). It first says ‘Yaakov dwelt’ and not that Yaakov sojourned in the land because it previously by Esav  said ‘Esav dwelt on MountSe’ir’ (Breishis 36:5) when the Torah discussed the descendants of Esav and the kings and chieftains that came from him, and that they settled in the land they were given to inherit, the land which will always be theirs; therefore the Torah is now telling us that Yaakov settled down in the Holy Land, in the land of his father's sojourning. The reason the Torah uses the word migurei,is  because we find the Torah elsewhere calls it that, ‘to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojourning in which they sojourned’ (Shemos 6:4). This is because our forefathers (specifically Avraham) were uprooted from the other side of the river, they were now immigrants (geirim) in the land that was Canaan at that time.” (Click here for end of Hebrew text)

It would seem at first glance that Rabbeinu Bachya is teaching us that a person is righteous if he views himself as a temporary travelerin this world, knowing that at any moment he might pass away and he must  therefore prepare provisions for the journey to the World to Come, which are the mitzvos that he performs. This attitude is a sign of a tzadik, a person who is righteous.
However one can wonder why he is more special than any other Jew who performs mitzvos day in and day out, and might even expect reward for doing the mitzvos and is also careful tonot sin since he is afraid of punishment? Why aren’t we, meaning you or I, the average Joes who tries to be Torah observant, known to be tzadikim, righteous?

It must be that Rabbeinu Bachye is doing more than giving us a sign of the righteous -he is also sending us a message that you or I, or anyone can become a tzadik, it is not reserved for the elite, and he is sharing with us the formula of how to become a tzadik. We have to have the attitude that I am a ger.

We see from here that a ger has many connotations; a convert, a traveler, an immigrant. But they are all rooted in the same concept, that one is like a piece of grain separated from its root.

If a person has the attitude that he is like a convert who feels like a stranger separated from his people and family who he grew up with, and therefore feels subjugation and humility which stirs in him an urge to constantly be looking up towards Hashem in prayer for help and comfort, always increasing one’s emuna and bitachon, faith and trust in Hashem, then this is the first step in the process of becoming a tzadik. One also has to have the attitude that he is just a sojourner, a traveler through life who does not know when the end will come and therefore has to always be searching out for mitzvos to perform in the best quality he can so that he will have the proper provisions when his time does come to go from this world to the Next World. This is the second part of the formula to becoming a tzadik. Finally, one has to have an attitude that I am like an immigrant in a strange land, having no entitlements, and must respect the people around me who were living here long before I was.

With this formula of having an attitude of a ger: selfless, temporary, and humble, all being channeled into serving Hashem then it will seem, according to the Rabbeinu Bachye that one will become a tzadik.