Shiur #15: The Outsiders Vayikra Rabba 3:2

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

Vayikra Rabba 3:2 is once again a petichta:



[Applicable to this is the passage],

“You that fear the Lord, praise Him;

All you seed of Jacob, glorify Him;

And stand in awe of Him, you seed of Israel,” (Ps. 22:24).


This passage does not open with the standard “Rabbi X opened (patach)” which is the signature opening of a petichta. Nevertheless, in what follows, the petichta form is followed exactly. The petichta verse is from Psalms chapter 22. The problem in the verse which the midrash seeks to solve emerges from the rabbinic notion of omnisignificance, namely, that every word and phrase in the Bible has independent significance. Here, the verse uses three terms to describe a group of individuals: “You that fear the Lord,” “The seed of Jacob” and the “Seed of Israel.” From a peshat perspective, these three terms are all synonymous. They refer to the Jewish people, or at least to the devout among them. In the eyes of the Midrash, however, these three distinct names must refer to three distinct groups of people.


The midrash begins by attempting to identify the meaning of the term, “You that fear the Lord”:


“You that fear the Lord,”

said R. Joshua b. Levi, means those that fear heaven.

R. Samuel b. Nachman said: It means the righteous proselytes.


The second definition of the term is quite clear. The term refers to converts to Judaism. This is in contrast to the “seed of Jacob” and the “seed of Israel” which are understood to refer to people who are born Jewish. This picks up on one of the themes we saw in Parasha One - the contrast between those whose connection to God is based on birth and those for whom it is based on choice.


Far less clear is the first definition, that “you that fear the Lord,” refers to “those that fear heaven."  Who are these fearers of heaven? Without any outside information, we would be forced to conclude that this refers simply to pious people, Jewish or otherwise. However, given that they are contrasted with “righteous proselytes” it seems most likely that these “fearers of Heaven” refers to a specific group of individuals in the ancient world known to us from Josephus and others as Theosebeis or God-fearers. These were Gentiles who never underwent conversion or circumcision, but nevertheless identified themselves with the local Jewish community, attending the synagogue and practicing some of the commandments. These individuals were similar to the class of people the rabbis called gerei toshav.


If this identification is correct, then the debate between R. Joshua and R. Samuel might be seen as being about the relationship between born Jews, converts and “God-fearers." We might argue that R. Joshua and R. Samuel dispute the significance of the God-fearer phenomenon. R. Joshua does not acknowledge that God-fearers should be spoken of in the same breath as Jews, be they by birth or by choice. R. Samuel, on the other hand, has very high regard for God-fearers and does not hesitate to interpret the verse as speaking of them in the same breath as Jews. Alternatively, we might argue that the fact that R. Joshua has the verse use distinct terms for converts and born Jews, suggests that he sees a fundamental distinction between the two groups. R. Samuel in contrast includes all Jews under the same title, suggesting that he sees no fundamental distinction between converts and born Jews.


This dispute is followed by a most striking statement:


R. Chizkiya and R. Abbahu said in the name of R. Eleazar:

If the righteous proselytes come to the Hereafter,

Antoninus will come at the head of all of them.


The Antoninus in question here is the Roman Emperor of that name who is known in rabbinic literature for his friendship with Rabbi Judah Hanasi and his high regard for the Jewish tradition. According to one opinion in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Antoninus actually converted to Judaism.  The historian Gedaliah Alon and other scholars have identified this Antoninus with the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caracalla who reigned from 211-217 CE.


This passage apparently raises doubts whether or not converts have a share in the World to Come.  R. Chizkiya and R. Abbahu are not sure if this is the case. They hedge their statement, arguing only that if they do enter the next world, then Antoninus will be the first to be so rewarded.  This notion is quite striking.  Generally speaking, we assume that converts are full-fledged Jews. Why should they be denied their share in the World to Come? After all, the Mishna teaches that “All Israel has a share in the World to Come.”


The great scholar Prof. Saul Lieberman rejected this possibility. He felt that it was impossible that these two rabbis entertained the possibility that converts have no share in the World to Come.  To do so would be to reject one of the basic principles of Jewish thought.  Based on his reading of the manuscripts of the parallel passage in the Yerushalmi, Lieberman argued that the line should be understood as follows: If converts are accepted in the Messianic age, Antoninus will be the first among them. Lieberman assumed that this passage believes that Antoninus did not convert in his lifetime. The question is, once the Messiah comes and the resurrection of the dead has occurred, will righteous Gentiles like Antoninus be given the opportunity to convert in order to fully enjoy the festivities of the World to Come, or will they have to remain Gentiles? If they are allowed to convert, then certainly Antoninus, perhaps the greatest of the God-fearers of all time, will certainly be the first to do so.  In this reading, R. Chizkiya and R. Abbahu are entertaining the possibility that the gap between converts and God-fearers is only temporary. At the end of days the God-fearers quite possibly will all be transformed into full-fledged Jews.


I am not so sure that the simple meaning of the statement, questioning whether or not converts have a share in the Next World, needs to be rejected out of hand. While the mainstream position in the Jewish tradition has always been that there can be no distinction between converts and born-Jews, there is no shortage of sources that seek to distinguish between the two. While it may be a radical position, it is hardly impossible that some rabbis were not sure if converts have a share in the World to Come like born Jews.


The midrash now turns to the distinction between the second two terms in the verse: “seed of Jacob” versus “seed of Israel." According to peshat these two terms are completely synonymous. “Jacob” and “Israel” are, after all, two names of the same person. The midrashic principle of omnisignificance however, insists that there are no redundancies in the Bible and that each term has its own distinct meaning: 


And what does Scripture mean by saying, “All you seed of Jacob, glorify Him”?

This means the [first] eleven tribes.

If so, why is it also said, “And stand in awe of Him, all you seed of Israel”?

Said R. Benjamin b. Levi: this means the tribe of Benjamin who came [into the world] last.


How are we to distinguish between “Jacob” and “Israel”? “Jacob” was the third patriarch’s given name. It was only later in life, after returning to the land of Israel from Charan, that God changed his name to “Israel." These two names can thus be seen as referring to two periods in the patriarch’s life. Consequently, the “seed” of each can be seen as referring to the children born during each of these periods.  As it turns out, all but one of the children of Jacob were born before the name change.  Hence, the term “seed of Jacob” refers to the first eleven tribes, while “seed of Israel” refers to the last of the tribes to be born: Benjamin.


It can hardly be a coincidence that the individual who makes the statement about the tribe of Benjamin is himself named Benjamin. it seems to me that the motivation behind dividing the tribes into two groups, Benjamin and all the others, is to single out Benjamin for a special status. Benjamin is already given special status in the Bible. God is said to dwell between his shoulders. Jerusalem and the Temple were in his territory. This midrash would seem to suggest that this special status is a function of the fact that only Benjamin was born to Jacob after he received the elevated status of “Israel." We should also note that only Benjamin was born in the Land of Israel.   


The Midrash has now concluded its analysis of the petichta verse. However, we have not yet segued into the parasha verse. Normally in these circumstances, the midrash will begin yet another interpretation of the petichta verse. In this case however the midrash does something less conventional. It moves on to the next verse following the petichta verse in Psalms 22:


It is further written,

“For He has not despised nor abhorred the lowliness of the poor.”

The usual experience is: Two men go before a judge, one of them poor and the other rich;

towards whom does the judge turn his face? Is it not towards the rich man?

But here, “He has not hid His face from him; but when he cried unto Him, He heard.”


This section makes use of the be-nohag she-ba’olam form. As we have seen previously, this form is a type of inverted mashal. A mashal compares God’s behavior to human behavior. A be-nohag she-ba’olam contrasts God’s behavior with normal human behavior. Thus, where a mashal seeks to make God more familiar to us, a be-nohag she-ba’olam makes Him more distant. In this case, God’s relationship to the poor is compared to that of a human judge.  Human judges tend to favor the rich and the prominent over the lowly and poor. Humans are very concerned with social status. God, on the other hand, treats all equally. He listens to all and responds to their pleas.


The midrash thus interprets the verse in Psalms as saying that God treats all, rich and poor, equally. Now the midrash presents a different reading: that God actually favors the poor over the rich:


R. Chaggai decreed a fast, and rain came down.

He said: It is not because I am worthy, but because it is written,

“For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the lowly.”


Here, the midrash tells a story. Like many of the stories the rabbis tell, the purpose of this story is to teach a lesson though the doings and sayings of a great rabbi. More specifically, this story is part of a genre of stories that tell about how a holy man brought rain through fasting and prayer. Perhaps the most famous of these rainmakers is Choni Ha-me’agel.  Choni famously draws a circle around himself, swearing not to leave the circle until God sent rain. When the rain does come, Choni first complains that there is not enough rain and then that the rain is too strong. Choni was not satisfied until God sent rain of the exact right quality.


Generally speaking, these stories demonstrate that the holy man has a special relationship with God which he exploits in order to get God to send rain. In this story, that convention is reversed. R. Chaggai denies that he has any special privileges or powers.  He says that his prayers were answered, not because of his own merits, but due to the fact that God answers the prayers of poor people. Any poor person could have gotten the same results.


This represents a different reading of the verse from Psalms than the one we saw previously. Before, the verse was understood as teaching that God treats all equally, regardless of their economic or social status. Now the midrash argues the God is indeed biased, in favor of the poor and oppressed rather than against them. Since the people of Israel, in general, tend to be poor and oppressed, this principle can be seen as referring to God’s concern for  Jews in general and not just His concern for certain individuals.


This brings us to the final section of the petichta, which connects the petichta verse to the parasha verse:


And even as He despises not his prayer, He, likewise, despises not his offering, as it is said,



From the discussion of prayer, the midrash easily segues into the topic of sacrifices. The meal offering is the quintessential poor person’s sacrifice. Normally, sacrifices are brought from animals, but those who cannot afford even a small bird can sacrifice flour instead. One might think that such a sacrifice is inferior to an animal offering. However, just as we have learned from the Psalms verse that God does not reject the prayers of the poor, so too He does not reject their sacrifices. Indeed, it is even possible to read the midrash as saying that God actually prefers the meal offerings of the poor to the animal sacrifices of the rich.


This petichta is made up of two distinct parts. The first part interprets Psalms 22:24 and focuses primarily on the subject of converts. The second part interprets Psalms 22:25 and focuses on the topic of God’s relationship to poor people.  Arguably, the only thing which links these two parts is the fact that they interpret two consecutive verses. However, I believe that there is a deeper unity in this petichta. The terms ani and ger, poor person and convert, or stranger, appear together frequently in the Torah. They represent the margins of society, individuals who normally are oppressed and taken advantage of. The Torah commands us to take special care to ensure that such people are treated with dignity and compassion. The petichta similarly teaches the reader of the special status of both converts and poor people. Just as God accords them special status, we, too, must take care to ensure the welfare of those who are on the margins of Jewish society, either socially or economically.