Who Is Eligible for Conversion?
In this week's parsha, we learn about various categories of people who are forbidden from becoming full-fledged members of the Jewish community. This tends to be a controversial issue in secular circles, but let us press on, and call it as we see it. "No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the L-rd; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the L-rd, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they [the Moabites] hired Balaam son of Beor ... to curse you" (Deut. 23:4,5, trans. JPS). (Luckily, we don't know who the descendants of the Ammonites and Moabites are today, since otherwise we would have a touchy situation!) Other groups, however, get better treatment: "You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land. Children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of the L-rd in the third generation" (23:8,9).
Now we may ask: Why are the Egyptians to get better treatment than the Ammonites and Moabites? They enslaved us, and oppressed us brutally. By comparison, the bad behavior of the Ammonites and Moabites seems rather mild!
The Ramban asks this question, and for an answer quotes a Midrash from Bereishis. Remember that the Ammonites and Moabites were descended from Lot's daughters, and, in fact, owed their existence to the fact that Abraham pleaded for the survival of Sodom if it contained ten righteous people, which (according to one interpretation) could refer to Lot's family. Thus the Ammonites and Moabites, by not providing elementary desert hospitality towards the descendants of Abraham, were guilty of gross ingratitude. The Egyptians, on the other hand, did not owe the Jews anything. The Jews were just another nation to them. Hence, reprehensible as their behavior was, they were not guilty of ingratitude.
All this shows the importance in Judaism of the concept of gratitude.
The Ten Commandments open with the declaration: "I am the L-rd your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage" (Exod. 20:2). Why did G-d say here: "who brought you out of the land of Egypt"? Why not, for example, "who created the world"? In fact why put anything here at all? We should be satisfied with the knowledge that He is G-d, independent of what He has done for us.
The Sforno gives the answer: The basic reason we should accept G-d, and follow His commandments, is out of appreciation for what He has done for us.
This shows that the bottom line of Judaism is appreciation, for the benefits we have received from G-d, and from others. To worship G-d properly, one does not have to be a big kabbalist, steeped in mysticism. The main thing is to have an appreciation, and gratitude, for His deeds. This also explains why we should not treat the Egyptians harshly, for we were once guests in their land, at their invitation, and it did not always go badly with us there, and we should be grateful for this. So our whole relationship with the Ammonites and Moabites, and with the Egyptians, hinges on this concept of gratitude.
I recently read in the "Chovos HaLevavos" (4:5) the statement: "The basis of serving G-d is recognition of the good", that is, appreciating His goodness to us, whether it be in our personal life or in the lives of our family, our community or our people as a whole. And I would like to add that a good way to develop this appreciation is to learn to appreciate the goodness of other people to us.