In this week's Torah portion, the Israelites are told to not oppress strangers, for we were strangers in Egypt — a concept that is repeated often throughout the Bible and needs continued repeating today.
This week, we stand again at Sinai. Some of us were literally standing during the reading of last week’s portion, Yitro, as the Ten Commandments were recited or chanted. This week’s portion, Mishpatim, continues God’s rules for the creation of a holy society.
In the midst of this recitation, we read: “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This statement is subsequently repeated and expanded: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that the literal meaning is “you know the soul of the stranger.” We who have suffered being the “other” know too well that such treatment bruises not only our feelings, but our very souls. God directs us to interrupt the cycle of oppression and cruelty, and see every “other” as a “soul.” We have an opportunity to revisit and, in some way, correct the past through responses not of oppression but of kindness, compassion and welcome. Our experience, however painful, can become a source of wisdom, guiding us to honor the dignity of those with whom we share our world.
This statement is introduced in Mishpatim, and is reiterated multiple times in the Bible. The Talmud teaches, “Rabbi Eliezer the Great used to say: Why does the Torah warn in 36 places — and some say, in 46 places — concerning the stranger? Because humanity tends towards evil.”
Is this why the Torah is so specific in detailing the laws that we should follow? Because “humanity tends towards evil?” Or does the Torah direct us because we are human beings, and human beings tend to forget? When we do remember, we too often remember anger and hurt. Instead of seeking understanding, we look for revenge. The Torah attempts to help us recover memory that can turn us toward goodness and repair.
The Talmud continues: “Why is it written ‘Do not wrong a stranger and do not oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’? … Rabbi Natan used to say: Do not accuse your neighbor of the blemish that is in you.”
Our inability to see our own goodness, our own godliness, leads us to treat others with a lack of respect, kindness and justice. The Torah challenges us to do better, to treat ourselves with greater respect and to honor others as we learn to honor ourselves.
Our Israelite ancestors may have been as puzzled as we may be as we read this compilation. Yet they accepted God’s direction: “Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Holy One and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, ‘All the things that God has commanded we will do!’ ”
Moses writes down God’s commands, and then reads “the record of the covenant” to the people. Then they respond, “All that God has spoken we will faithfully do!” The additional word in this second affirmation, translated here as “faithfully,” is often translated as: “we will do and we will hearken/heed.”
Can we, like our ancestors, take on this responsibility as our own? Can we remember every day that our slavery, our memory of dark times, mandates that we become bearers of light for those who can, if given the opportunity, become our partners in building a world of peace? Come stand with me at Sinai, once again.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell serves as scholar-in-residence at Washington Hebrew Congregation.