The fourth of the Ten Commandments is the weekly observance of Shabbat. God commands, “Do not do any work – you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maidservant, your animal and your foreigner in your gates” (20:10).
Rav Yechezkel of Shinova, in his Divrei Yechezkel, tells that there was once a convert to Judaism who felt disheartened, or even offended, by this verse, which lists children, servants and animals before “foreigners.” In its list of those who must refrain from work on Shabbat, the Torah mentions the foreigner – people from other nations who joined Am Yisrael – last, after even the animals. The sequence in this list appears to progress from the highest to lowest stature – adults, children, servants, and animals – and concludes with the foreigners, suggesting that they are considered inferior even to animals.
The Rebbe of Shinova proceeds to offer a clever reason for why this sequence does not suggest any disrespect to converts. He explains that the Torah first commands a person to observe Shabbat and to ensure that all those under his authority – his children, servants and animals – also refrain from forbidden work on this day. Then, the Torah emphasizes that foreigners are no different from any other person in this regard, as they, too, must observe Shabbat like everybody else. In other words, the Torah mentions children, servants and cattle before mentioning the convert because their observance is the responsibility of their parents, master or owner, and not their own personal obligation. The convert, by contrast, is personally responsible for his own Shabbat observance, just like other members of the nation. In essence, then, according to the Shinover Rebbe’s reading, the Torah here instructs, “Do not do any work, and ensure that those under your authority likewise refrain from work; and this command applies equally to converts, as well.”
This discussion is perhaps intended to emphasize the convert’s personal responsibility for his religious observance, despite the challenges and disadvantages he faces coming from a foreign background. The Torah on numerous occasions impresses upon us the obligation to care for and assist foreigners, who face unique difficulties by virtue of their origins. The Rebbe of Shinova here makes the point that despite the obligation for others to lend the foreigner much-needed assistance, nevertheless, he must take personal responsibility for his religious observance. He must not see himself as dependent on other people for his mitzva performance. Despite the special challenges he faces, he is not like a child or servant, whose religious responsibility rests upon the shoulders of the parent or master. While others are certainly expected to help him, he is expected to do his part in working to overcoming the challenges he faces in his efforts to satisfactorily observe the Torah’s laws.
This message, of course, applies not only to converts, but to all of us. The challenges we confront as we try to observe the Torah do not absolve us of our responsibilities, and do not allow us to wait until others help us. We must not put our religious commitment on hold while wait for somebody to come along to inspire us, to energize us, or to somehow make mitzva observance easier, more convenient, more appealing or more exciting. In a sense, we are all like “foreigners,” as each of us faces difficulties of one sort or another in our religious lives. The Shinover Rebbe’s insight teaches us that we need to accept, embrace and devote ourselves to our Torah obligations despite the challenges we face, without expecting others to assume this responsibility for us.