We read in Parashat Vayeitzei that as Yaakov made his way from his homeland, Canaan, to Charan, to escape from his brother, he made a vow to God. He declared, “If God will be with me, and protect me along this journey along which I am now traveling, and give me bread to eat and clothing to wear…then this stone which I have made into a monument shall be a house of God, and all that You give me, I shall tithe for You” (28:20).
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 70:5) relates (according to one version of the text of the Midrash) that this verse was cited by Rabbi Eliezer when he was confronted by a distraught convert to Judaism. The convert, named Akilas, asked Rabbi Eliezer why the Torah in Sefer Devarim (10:18) says about God, “and He loves the convert, granting him bread and a garment.” Akilas wondered, “Is this all the praise of a convert?” – meaning, is this all that a convert can hope for, to have his basic necessities met? Rabbi Eliezer replied, “Is it something simple in your eyes, that which the elderly man [Yaakov] struggled with?!” Citing the pledge Yaakov made on condition that he would be provided with “bread to eat and clothing to wear,” Rabbi Eliezer noted that Yaakov considered the provision of these basic needs a precious blessing, which could not be taken for granted.
The story continues that Akilas went to Rabbi Eliezer’s colleague, Rabbi Yehoshua, and posed his question. Rabbi Yehoshua spoke to him more assuringly, explaining that when the Torah describes God as granting converts “food” and “a garment,” it means that God enables converts to acquire knowledge of Torah – which is considered “food” for a Jew – and a tallit with tzitzit strings. God blesses converts with not just their basic necessities, but also the opportunity to excel in Torah study and mitzva observance, just like all other Jews. Alternatively, Rabbi Yehoshua explained, this verse means that God enables converts to have offspring who will be kohanim, such that they will eat sacrificial food and wear the special priestly garments. The Midrash concludes: “They said: If not for the patience which Rabbi Yehoshua extended towards Akilas, he would have reverted back to his wayward conduct.”
Rabbi Yehoshua understood that what troubled Akilas was not the verse itself, but rather the vexing question of his place within his new nation. As a newcomer, Akilas felt uneasy about whether he can or would be completely integrated, whether he would be accepted as a full-fledged member of the Jewish People, and given the same opportunities granted to other members. And so Rabbi Yehoshua assured him that God empowers converts to accomplish as much as anyone else, that he, too, would be capable of spiritual greatness. This reassurance prevented Akilas from despairing and regretting his decision to join Am Yisrael.
But while Rabbi Yehoshua’s response was the correct one considering Akilas’ justified uneasiness, we must not discount Rabbi Eliezer’s response, or overlook its great importance. For the purpose of addressing Akilas’ real and understandable concerns, Rabbi Yehoshua’s reply was what was needed at that time, but for our own outlook, Rabbi Eliezer’s reply expresses the vitally important message that even our basic needs must not be taken for granted. “Food to eat and clothing to wear” is a precious gift that must be appreciated and cherished. While it is certainly acceptable to strive for more, we should never take our basic necessities for granted. And even if we, like Akilas, have accomplished something remarkable, making difficult sacrifices for the sake of God, even then, we should not necessarily assume that we deserve anything beyond “food to eat and clothing to wear,” and even that must be regarded as a precious, unmerited gift. We must appreciate everything we are given, without ever assuming that we deserve more.