Thursday, October 13, 2016

Time to Build the Sukkah!

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Haazinu sheet and share it with your friends and family.

Time to Build the Sukkah!

There is a practice to build the sukkah immediately following Yom Kippur, to begin involving ourselves with mitzvot as soon as possible so as to turn our teshuvahprocess into action. But building a sukkah is not just one mitzvah of many mitzvot; it can be seen as a model of how we can live our lives better in the year to come.

We dwell in the sukkah to remember that God "caused the children of Israel to dwell in huts (sukkot)" when they left Egypt (Vayirka 23:43). But how is this true?  First, why is the dwelling in huts something worth commemorating? Second, the Torah consistently describes the people as dwelling in tents, not huts (e.g., Shemot 16:16; 18:7; 33:7; 33:10-11, and many more). It is probably for this reason that Rabbi Akiva states that the verse does not refer to huts, but rather to the ananei ha'kavod, the Clouds of Glory, that God surrounded the people with to protect them as they travelled through the wilderness. (Mechilta on Shemot 12:37, and see Sukkot 11a, where the view is ascribed to R. Eliezer).  
There is a verse in the Ha'azinu song of this week's parasha which likely alludes to these Clouds of Glory. In the opening of the song, Moshe describes all the goodness that God has done for the children of Israel: "He found him in a desert land, and in the waste-howling wilderness; He surrounded them, He instructed him, He kept him as the apple of His eye." (Devarim 32:10). Many commentators and midrashim explain that the phrase, "He surrounded them," refers to God surrounding the people with the Clouds of Glory (see Ibn Ezra 32:10, Bamidbar Rabbah 2:6).  God protected us "as the apple of His eye," and every year at this time we commemorate this and demonstrate our desire to always live under God's protective wings, always able to feel God's presence in our lives.

The experience of Yom Kippur that translates into Sukkot is, from this perspective, that of closeness to God. On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol would atone for his sins and the sins of the people and enter into the Holy of Holies, experiencing intimacy with the Divine. We, too, after a day of fasting and prayer, experience a closeness with God, and we strive to bring this into the holiday of Sukkot and into the rest of the year. 

But there is another way that the building of a sukkah links Yom Kippur with Sukkot.  It relates less to the Kohen Gadol's entering the Holy of Holies, and more to his cleansing of the Mikdash. The verses tell us not only that the Kohen Gadol would atone for the people's sins but, repeatedly, that the service of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur was to cleanse the Sanctuary from its impurities. There is a message here for us today, a message that when we want to think about starting fresh, we have to think not only about changing ourselves but about changing our environment as well.

Breishit Rabbah (ch. 34) states that among the things that can reverse the evil decree are: shinuy ha'shemshinuy ma'aseh, and shinuy ma'kom, change of name, change of deeds, and change of place. This nicely captures three ways we try to do teshuvah. To change one's name is to attempt to change who one is; it is teshuvah as complete transformation of self. While we believe that this is possible, it is almost always beyond our reach. As Rav Yisrael Salanter said, "It is easier to go through all of Shas than to change one character trait."  More achievable is change of deeds, to commit to doing things differently. I have often stressed this approach, and recommended that people commit to just one or two concrete, doable things, such as devoting  five minutes a day to learn Torah with one's child, or to go to minyan more regularly, or to devote uninterrupted time to spend with one's spouse or one's children, or to go the gym once a week.  While this approach is sometimes successful, it is fair to say that these commitments rarely last more than a few weeks at most. But if we cannot always change our actions, we can change our environment.

Last year, I resolved to not check my phone while driving. I am well aware of how dangerous this behavior is and how even a few seconds' distraction can lead to an accident and terrible injury or loss of life. And yet, after two or three weeks, my natural inclinations and my boredom got the better of me, and I found myself once again checking my phone while driving. Force of will was not going to do it. What I could do, however, is remove the temptation. I could turn off the phone before I got in the car. A small change in the environment allowed me to live up to my better self.

Rambam describes the person who has done "complete teshuvah" by giving the example of a man who has sinned with a particular woman. This man, says Rambam, will have done complete teshuvah if he changes so thoroughly that even were he to be with the same woman in the same place and under the same circumstances, he would not repeat his sin, and that even God  would testify to this (Laws of Teshuvah 2:1). But I am less interested in the person who has done complete teshuvah than I am in the person who knows what his weaknesses are and who makes sure never to be in the same room with the same woman!

The halakhic definition of complete teshuvah is actually different than the religious one.  Halakha needs to know that a person's actions have changed so that he can be trusted again by others. For example, if a person were a gambler, he could not be trusted to testify honestly because his testimony might be bought off. "When are they (gamblers) considered to have repented? When they break up their gaming paraphernalia and undergo a complete reformation, so much so, that they will not play even as a pastime." (Sanhedrin 25b). Halakha doesn't care about what God can testify to; it cares about what we can see. And it doesn't care about whether the person still has the same weaknesses as before. Halakha is realistic.  What it cares about is what choices the person is making to protect himself against his weaknesses. If a person is addicted to gambling and he wants to change, he might not be able to resist gambling once he is in a casino, but he can make sure to never go into the casino in the first place.

This is a type of teshuvah that allows us to be honest with ourselves, to know that there are things about us that will never change, and yet, by owning our weaknesses, we can make intelligent choices ahead of time. By making a shinuy ma'kom, we allow ourselves to make a shinuy ma'aseh, to change how we act, and if these changes in action take place long enough and consistently enough, we may even succeed in a true shinuy ha'shem, a true transformation.

In small matters as well, these changes matter.  Many studies have shown how our actions are guided by environmental cues. The presence of applesauce and fruit cocktails on cafeteria lines is correlated to students purchasing more sugary snacks, including cookies and ice cream.  In contrast, the presence of bananas and green beans correlates to students making healthier snack choices all around.

I am certain that each one of us can think of a number of small changes to our environment that will allow us to make wiser choices. Maybe it means turning off our phones when talking to our spouse or children, or maybe it means keeping electronics out of the bedroom altogether. Maybe it means having a Pirkei Avot near our dining room table, or having the trainer come to the house rather than having to go to the gym. Maybe it is about having our bookcases filled with Jewish books. Let's start to acknowledge that our will power is often not sufficient, and let's tweak our surroundings so that they can do some of the work for us.

This, then, is a way to understand why Sukkot follows Yom Kippur. It is taking the cleansing of the Mikdash, of the place of God's dwelling, and translating it into the cleansing and constructing of our homes, of the place of our dwelling. On Yom Kippur we got in touch with what our ideal self would look like. If we now want to begin to make that a reality, we must now go out and build a sukkah. We must take responsibility for our surroundings and construct them in a way which help us to be our ideal selves. It is through this that we will merit to dwell under the Clouds of Glory, surrounded by God's protection and God's presence.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Standing Again at Sinai

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Vayelech sheet and share it with your friends and family.

Standing Again at Sinai

In one of his last instructions to the children of Israel, Moshe commands the people in the mitzvah of hakhel, a public reading of the Torah to take place once every seven years.  All the people are to be present: "Gather the nation: the men, the women, and the children, and the stranger who is in your gates" (31:12).  This list echoes the list in last week's parasha of those who stood to enter into the covenant with God in the plains of Moad.  The implication is clear: this public reading is reenactment and reaffirmation of the covenant.  

Imagine if every town and city in the United States would gather each year on the 4th of July for a public reading of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.  Regardless of what people heard or understood, everyone would leave the experience with a sense of patriotism and connection to the founding documents and principles of the country.  Similarly, when everyone gathered to hear the Torah being read, it was an act of connecting to God's Torah and of affirming that it was this text that directed each individual's life and defined the character of the people and the nation. The learning is experiential, not intellectual, and the goal was one of religious orientation and commitment: "That they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Torah." 

If this sounds familiar, it should.  A public declaration of God's word so that the people come to fear and obey God is how the Torah describes the revelation at Mt. Sinai:  "Behold I come to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you, and so that they will also believe in you forever." (Shemot 19:9).  Two key words in this passage are "people" (am) and "hear" (yishmah), which find exact parallel in our parasha, "Gather the people (ha'am)... that they may hear (yishmau)". The parallel goes further, for in Devarim the day of standing at Mt. Sinai is described three times as yom ha'kahal, the day of gathering (9:10, 10:4, 18:16).  In fact, the mitzvah of hakhel directly echoes the words that Moshe used when he recounted the events of Mt. Sinai:

(Devarim 31:12-13)
  • Gather (hakhel) the people (ha'am) together, men and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates...
  • that they may hear (yishmeu), and...
  • that they may learn (yilmedu) to fear (li'yirah) the Lord your God...  And that their children (bi'neichem)... may hear, and learn to fear (li'yirah) the Lord your God...
  • all the days (kol ha'yamim) as you live (chayim) in the land (ha'adamah) which  you go over Jordan to possess it...
(Devarim 4:9-10)
  •  Gather (hakhel) Me the people (ha'am) together, and...
  • I will make them hear (a'shmiem) my words...
  • that they may learn (yilmadum) to fear (li'yirah) Me...
  • all the days (kol ha'yamim) that they shall live (chayim) upon the earth (ha'adama), and that they may teach their children (bi'neichem).
Hakhel is not only a reaffirmation of the covenant; it is a reliving of the yom ha'kahal, the day of receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  Rambam makes this point: "Even converts who do not comprehend (the language) must direct their hearts and give their ear to hear (the hakhel recitation) with fear and awe and to rejoice in trembling as on the day that the Torah was given at Sinai... and one should see himself as if he was now commanded in the Torah and as if he heard it directly from God." (Laws of Chagigah 3:6).  To be present at the hakhel ceremony was to stand again at Sinai. 

Twenty-five years ago, Judith Plaskow coined the phrase "standing again at Sinai" in her groundbreaking book by that name. In "Standing Again at Sinai," Plaskow points out that Moshe tells the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai to "be prepared for three days, do not draw close to a woman." (Shemot 19:15). This verse demonstrates - writes Plaskow - that the Torah was being given to the men and that the women were not part of the covenant, at least not directly so.  She then goes on to call for a standing again at Sinai, a reclaiming and reshaping of the covenant by Jewish women today.

While Plaskow's read is the pshat of those verses, the rabbis of the Talmud go out of their way to include women in the Sinai narrative. They stated that God's directive to Moshe at Sinai to speak to "the house of Jacob" (beit Yaakov) refers specifically to the women, and that the demand that there be no sexual contact for the three days prior was to enable the women - not the men - to be ritually pure for the event.

However one reads the standing at Sinai in Shemot, there can be no question that in Devarim the Sinai event is understood to have involved the entire nation.  Themitzvah of hakhel is to relive the yom ha'kahal, the day when everyone - men, women, and children - stood at Mt. Sinai. And it is to reaffirm the covenant with God made before they entered the land, a covenant that was made with "your children, your women, and the stranger in your camp" (29:9-10).

While the hakhel event occurred only once every seven years, there is a way in which we perform a mini-hakhel multiple times each week: through our communal reading of the Torah in the synagogue. The Torah is read on Shabbat, Mondays, and Thursdays, times when as many people as possible can be present for the reading.  The Talmud (Bava Kama 82a) relates that while aspects of this practice began at the time of Moshe, it took on its current form only in the time of Ezra, when Ezra delivered a public reading of the Torah to the people (Nehemia, ch. 8). Significantly, the verses there state that Ezra read it "before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding." (8:2).

The trice-weekly reading of Torah lacks the drama and power of the hakhel reading and it may not be functioning as a full reenactment of the Sinaitic event with all its pyrotechnics.  But it is nevertheless a regular connecting to the Torah and to the divine word.  Because it is a quieter, smaller, and more modest event, it allows for a different type of connection, not just experiential, but also educational. Ezra read the Torah to "all that could hear with understanding," and it was read "distinctly, and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading." (v. 8). It was this need for the people to understand that led to the institution of the meturgaman, the translator who would give a running rendition of the verses in the vernacular. The reading in the synagogue is thus a form of talmud Torah as much as it is a form of hearing and receiving the Torah.

The fact that Ezra included women in his public reading of the Torah demonstrates that it was critical to connect women not only to the experience of God's word, but also to the meaning of those words, in other words, to the learning of Torah. This is consistent with the status and sanctity of Torah, which is in principle universalist and non-hierarchical in nature.  Priesthood is limited to the sons of Aharon, kingship is limited to the descendants of David, but the Torah is available to all (Rambam, Talmud Torah 3:1).  And the hierarchy of Kohen, Levi, and Yisrael, of man and woman, is trumped by the meritocracy of Torah study (Mishna Horiyot 3:8).  I believe that this is the reason why according to the braita (Megilah 23a), women and children can in principle receive an aliyah to the Torah, although they are normally assumed to be excluded from synagogue ritual.  Why of all synagogue rituals are they included here? It is because the reading of the Torah is a standing again at Sinai, an event which includes all of Israel. And it is an act of a communal learning of Torah, and talmud Torah is open to all. While the Kohen, Levi, Yisrael hierarchy winds up reasserting itself in this context as well, the principle that all people are fundamentally included remains unchanged.

As we start to look towards Sukkot and Simchat Torah, when we will once again as a community celebrate our communal reading and completion of the Torah over the past year, let us commit that whenever we relive the receiving of the Torah, and whenever we connect to the learning and study of Torah, we do so as an entire community, men, women, and children, so that we may all be a part of the covenant and all have a part in God's Torah.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

To Lead, Perchance to Dream

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Nitzavim sheet and share it with your friends and family.

To Lead, Perchance to Dream
In memory of Shimon Peres z"l, 1923-2016 

The people about to enter the Land of Israel are different than those who left Egypt a generation earlier. These people were born free from slavery and can face the future without fear. They have forged a deep and lasting relationship with God over forty years in the wilderness. And they have become an am, individuals whose shared travels and travails, their shared past and future, have forged them into a single people. As Moshe tells them time and again, "It is this day that you have become a people to the Lord your God" (27:9, and see 26:18, 29:12). They are a people who are about to enter the land and become a nation.

Appreciating this transformation is key to understanding why the covenant forged at Mount Sinai must be repeated before they enter the land. As Parashat Nitzavim opens, we are told that the people have all been gathered "to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God." Earlier, the Torah tells us that this covenant is additional to the one made at Mount Sinai (28:69). Why make the same covenant a second time? Because the first was made with a loose collection of individuals; the second would be made with a people and a soon-to-be nation.

A single people has a corporate, abstract identity which transcends the identities of the individuals who comprise it. Moshe thus declares that the covenant is being made "not with you alone ... but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day" (29:14). While Tanhuma explains this to mean that the souls of all future generations were present at that moment, the simple meaning of the verse is more straightforward: Just as a nation is bound by the treaties it makes after all those who signed them have passed away, so too, Moshe is saying, you are entering into this covenant not as individuals but as the Jewish people, and it will be binding on you as a people at all times.

This is why the Torah introduces the concept of areivut, the idea that we are responsible for the actions of others. One aspect of areivut is reflected in the well-known phrase "kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba'zeh," "all of Israel are guarantors for one another" (Shavuot 39a). This indicates a personal obligation, that each person is responsible for every other person. A different dimension emerges from the opening section of our parasha, that of communal responsibility. Here we are told that if a person practices idolatry, thinking himself not bound by the covenant, the entire land will be devastated and the people sent into exile because "they have abandoned the covenant of God" (29:23). The nation is to be punished for the actions of individuals. If they had created a better society, if they had done more to ensure that everyone received proper religious and moral education, to create a fair and just legal system, to have religious and political leaders who were examples for the people, then no one would be writing themselves out of the covenant. The community as a whole is held responsible for falling short.

The second covenant differs from the first in other ways as well. At the sealing of the Sinaitic covenant in Parashat Bechukotai, the Torah spells out all the tragedies that will befall the people if they abandon God's laws. At the end of the long litany of curses, the Torah concludes with a note of hope and reassurance: God will not abandon or reject us; he will remember the Exodus and the covenant with the forefathers and save us for their sake (Vayikra 26:45). In stark contrast, after the long descriptions of curses in last week's parasha, there is no similar concluding verse; we are left with a bleak picture devoid of hope: "And the Lord shall bring you into Egypt again with ships, by the way which I spoke to you that you shall see it no more. There you shall sell yourselves unto your enemies for slave men and women, but none will buy" (28:68). Our forefathers are not mentioned here, and the Exodus from Egypt is now to be reversed: we will be taken from the Land of Israel and brought back to Egypt so despised that we will be worse than slaves, abandoned and forgotten. There will be no hope and nowhere to go. It will be-in all appearances-the end of our story as a people.

The difference between these endings is rooted in the different identities of the people. In the first covenant, the people are a loose collective. Indeed, in contrast to the later curses, those here refer to the people in the plural, indicating that they are not a single nation. As individuals, there is no collective history to reverse, just punishment and suffering for all. Their culpability is less, and so are the expectations for them. They are not yet a mature, empowered nation. The people have just reached the stage of being responsible for their individual actions; they certainly cannot be entrusted to protect the future of the nation. It is God, as a parent, who must step in and save them. This is what we do for our children. They will stumble and fall, and at times we will punish them, perhaps even harshly, but in the end, we will always be there for them. As Robert Frost put it, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there / They have to take you in." God, and our relationship with God, is our home. It is a home founded by our forefathers and imbued with the warm nostalgic memories of the Exodus. When we have to go there, when our lives are at stake and we need refuge and protection, God will always take us in.

The second covenant tells a different story. In it, as a people and a nation, we are the custodians of our history, so if we fail, the covenant can be reversed and effectively wiped out. But we are also custodians of our future. We are not given safety nets and comforting reassurances; after tragedy upon tragedy, a time may come that looks like the end. At such a time, God will not save us by swooping in from above. Rather, we must take matters into our own hands.

This is the story told in our parasha: "And it will be when all these things befall you....and you will return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice" (30:1-2). More than the simple acknowledgement of sin necessary for God to take us back in Bechukotai, here we must have a true reversal of direction. It is an active returning to God, turning our lives around, returning to the land, and restoring our history. After we have changed course, God will follow suit: "And the Lord your God will return your captivity, and return and gather you from all the nations where the Lord your God has scattered you there" (30:3). We direct the course of events; our actions cause God to act.

Our future may have looked bleak when we were first left to ourselves, but when we are able to take charge of our future, we can grow to heights not previously imagined. Here, we are not saved on account of our forefathers. Rather, we are told that God "will do good to you and make you greater than your fathers" (30:5). The Yerushalmi (Shvi'it 6:1) states that this means the second sanctification of the Land of Israel in the time of Ezra was more powerful and enduring than the first, in the time of Joshua. This is what true growing up is about: knowing that you can be as good your parents and, in some ways, even better. This can only happen on the national level once we have taken responsibility for ourselves as a people.

As Rosh HaShanah approaches, we derive comfort from knowing that no matter how far we stray, God will always take us back in. At the same time, we know that if we want to protect our personal past and shape our future, we must take charge of our own lives; we must not just confess our sins, but truly change our actions. If we want to chart our future as a people, we must own our communal responsibility, know that all of Klal Yisrael is part of the covenant, and know that it is up to us to create the type of society, and the type of future, that we want as a people.

This was the type of leadership exhibited by Shimon Peres in his seven decades of public service to the people and state of Israel. He believed that it was necessary to dream, stating that to accept the status quo was to give up on Israel's future. Peres was that rare breed of leader, a statesman, not a politician, a man who thought about history, not the next election.  He knew what it meant to be a custodian of the people's history and their future, and that one must always do what is right, not what is expedient. In his words, "It's better to be controversial for the right reasons, than to be popular for the wrong reasons."May his memory be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

One Nation, under God, with Liberty and Justice for All

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Ki Tavo sheet and share it with your friends and family.

One Nation, under God, with Liberty and Justice for All

The issue of who can be seen as a full member of the community arises at the beginning of this week’s parasha and is revisited at the outset of the next. In the opening of Ki Tavo, we read of two mitzvot that apply when a person harvests the produce of the land: the mitzvah of bikkurim, or first fruits, and the mitzvah of viduy ma’aser, the declaration made when a person distributes what remains of his tithes at the end of three years. In both, the farmer gives thanks to God for the harvest and knows that he must share this divinely-granted bounty with those who are less fortunate: the Levite, the ger (the stranger), the orphan, and the widow (26:11-2).
As a landowner, the farmer’s privileged position in society is implicit in these mitzvot. The Levite and the stranger do not own land, a serious economic disadvantage in an agricultural society, and the widow and orphan do not have an adult male to protect and provide for them. This privilege extends beyond wealth to status. In the society that the Torah imagines, one’s land is primarily inherited, not purchased (see Vayikra 25). To own land, then, is to be a fully entitled citizen, a descendant of those who originally entered the land, exactly as the person bringing the first fruits narrates: “I declare today that I have come to the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give to us” (26:3). He recites the story of the Exodus and declares that he is part of the sacred history, that his life as a part of the people is a culmination of God’s promise to the forefathers. The stranger and the widow are unable to make such a declaration. As outsiders, minors, or women, they have not inherited land; they do not figure as primary actors in the nation’s history; and they are not seen by society as having the same rights of belonging as others. It is the mandate of the landowner to protect and support them, but they remain at a distinctly lower social stratum.
The opening of next week’s parasha presents a different picture: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God ... all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, and the stranger within your camp ... to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God” (29:9-11). Here, the Torah implicitly recognizes that children, women, and strangers are not seen the same way as the men. It is for this reason that they must be identified explicitly, but it challenges such social stratification at the same time. The Torah is saying, while society may place you at different levels, today you all stand on equal footing to enter into the covenant with God. Although you have not inherited land and are not a recipient of that divine promise, you are part of the sacred history reaching back to the forefathers, “So that God may establish you this day as his people, and He shall be your God, as He spoke to you and as He swore to your forefathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov” (29:12).
We are presented with two competing models: one of social stratification and one of religious and covenantal equality. How are these two models to co-exist? One answer is that each one inhabits its own distinct sphere. In the public and political spheres, the societal hierarchies remain, but in the private and religious spheres, all are equal members of the covenant. This solution will only go so far; in the end, the two spheres will necessarily intersect. To take one example, if a ger is unable to make the bikkurim declaration because he does not have a portion in the land, he is then placed in a lower position socially and religiously.
Another possibility exists: We can read the equality of the covenant as a critique of social hierarchies and a mandate to not only protect the ger, the widow, and the orphan, but ultimately, to remove the social inequities that place them at the margins. This point can particularly be seen in the case of the ger, for the Torah commands us multiple times, “one law you shall have for you, for the stranger, and for the citizen alike, for I am the Lord your God” (Vayirka 24:22). The ultimate goal is to achieve true equality of status.
This dynamic actually played out in halakha, in the case of whether and how a ger-understood by the Rabbis as “convert”-may bring the first fruits. The Mishna Bikkurim (1:3) declares that “A ger brings bikkurim but does not recite [the Biblical passage], because he cannot say, ‘that You, God, swore to our forefathers to give to us.’” While allowing the ger to participate in the ritual and give thanks to God, this ruling excludes him from connecting with the history of the people. The problem here is not limited to the issue of inheriting the land; it extends to one’s very relationship with God. The Mishna continues: “When he prays by himself he declares [in place of ‘our God and the God of our fathers’], ‘[our God and] the God of the fathers of Israel,’ and when he prays in the synagogue he declares, ‘the God of your fathers.’” To recite his prayers in such a way must result in an acute degree of felt exclusion. Having joined the faith and identified with the people, the ger must now, on a daily basis, pray to a God with whom he has a personal relationship (“our God”), but a God who remains the God of another people. The ger remains forever an outsider. The move in this Mishna from recitation of bikkurim to prayer between the ger and God is the trumping of the social hierarchy over the covenantal equality, even in purely religious matters.
The story, thankfully, does not end there. The Yerushalmi quotes an opposing position of Rabbi Yehudah, who states that a ger does recite the bikkurim declaration and also recites “God of our fathers” when he prays, just like everyone else. Rambam explains this movingly in a letter to a convert by the name of Obadiah (responsum 293, translation by Isadore Twersky):
You ask me if you, too, are allowed to say in the blessings and prayers you offer alone or in the congregation: “Our God” and “God of our fathers”....In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessing and prayer, you, too, shall bless and pray alike....The reason for this is that Abraham our Father taught the people, opened their minds, and revealed to them the true faith and the unity of God....Ever since then whoever adopts Judaism and confesses the unity of the Divine Name, as it is prescribed in the Torah, is counted among the disciples of Abraham our Father, peace be with him... 
Therefore you shall pray, “Our God” and “God of our fathers,” because Abraham, peace be with him, is your father. And you shall pray, “The land that You have bequeathed to our fathers,” for the land has been given to Abraham....Since you have come under the wings of the Divine Presence and confessed the Lord, no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you. 
Here we have the reverse of what we saw in the Mishna. The ger refers to God as the God of his fathers in his prayers, and the miracles of Exodus were wrought to his fathers as well. He is now one of the people and their forbearers are his own. It goes further: The ger may even declare that the land has been bequeathed to his fathers, and-following the Yerushalmi-he may make the bikkurim declaration, proclaiming that God has taken him from Egypt and given him the land of Israel, although he in fact never truly owns the land as part of the original inheritance. Covenantal equality has trumped the societal hierarchies.
This is emphasized in other mitzvot as well. The Torah commands the ger to bring the Pesach sacrifice to share and affirm his participation in the foundational history of the people, and he has the mitzvah to recite the story of the Exodus on the Seder night-which takes the text of the bikkurim declaration as its point of departure-and to make himself part of that story. And when it comes to his ability to stake a claim to the land, the ger has the mitzvah of birkat ha’mazon, thanking God for the food after one eats and for the land-the land of Israel-that God has given us.
The Torah presents us with two competing models of belonging for the ger, the orphan, and the widow. One places them as a protected, disadvantaged class, and the other represents the rejection of class distinctions and the embracing of covenantal equality. Hazal have shown us that it is our responsibility to embrace the latter, to ensure that everyone is an equal member of the covenant and an equal member of society.
Shabbat Shalom!