The Heart of the Matter
(כ) וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃(20) You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
(כב) כי גרים הייתם. אִם הוֹנִיתוֹ, אַף הוּא יָכוֹל לְהוֹנוֹתְךָ וְלוֹמַר לְךָ, אַף אַתָּה מִגֵּרִים בָּאתָ, "מוּם שֶׁבָּךְ אַל תֹּאמַר לַחֲבֵרְךָ"; כָּל לְשׁוֹן גֵּר אָדָם שֶׁלֹּא נוֹלַד בְּאוֹתָהּ מְדִינָה, אֶלָּא בָּא מִמְּדִינָה אַחֶרֶת לָגוּר שָׁם:
(22) כי גרים הייתם FOR YOU WERE STRANGERS — If you taunt him he can taunt you also by saying to you: “You also descend from strangers”. Do not chastise tour fellow for the very flaw you have in yourself.
(כ) כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים לא הוכשרו כל הגרים בעבור היותנו גרים בארץ זמן, ואין טעם שיהיו מובטחים לעולם בעבור כן. ופירש רש''י כי הוא טעם ללא תונו אותו, יזהיר שלא תונה אותו בהונאת דברים, שאם הוניתו אף הוא יכל להונותך ולומר לך אף אתה מגרים באת, מום שבך אל תאמר לחברך. ור''א אמר זכור כי גרים הייתם כמוהו. ואין בכל זה טעם בעיקר: והנכון בעיני כי יאמר, לא תונה גר ולא תלחצנו ותחשבו שאין לו מציל מידך, כי אתה ידעת שהייתם גרים בארץ מצרים וראיתי את הלחץ אשר מצרים לוחצים אתכם ועשיתי בהם נקמה, כי אני רואה דמעת העשוקים אשר אין להם מנחם ומיד עושקיהם כח, ואני מציל כל אדם מיד חזק ממנו וכן האלמנה והיתום לא תענו כי אשמע צעקתם, שכל אלה אינם בוטחים בנפשם, ועלי יבטחו: ובפסוק האחר הוסיף טעם ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים (להלן כג ט) כלומר, ידעתם כי כל גר נפשו שפלה עליו והוא נאנח וצועק ועיניו תמיד אל ה' וירחם עליו כאשר רחם עליכם, כמו שכתוב (לעיל ב כג) ויאנחו בני ישראל מן העבודה ויצעקו ותעל שועתם אל האלהים מן העבודה. כלומר לא בזכותם רק שרחם עליהם מן העבודה:
(20) For you were strangers in the land of Egypt: Not all strangers are made fitting [for special treatment just] because we were strangers in [one] land for a time. And there is no reason that they should be assured [of this treatment] forever because of this. And Rashi on Exodus 22:20 explained that it is the reason why "you should not oppress him with words [...], for if you oppress him, he can oppress you [also] by saying to you, 'You also come from strangers' - [regarding] a blemish in you, do not speak about it in your fellow." And Rabbi Avraham (Ibn Ezra on Exodus 22:20) said, "Remember that you were strangers like him." But there is no fundamental explanation in all this. And that which is correct in my eyes is that when it states, "do not oppress the stranger and do not harry him," you should think that he has no one to save him from your hand, since you know that you were strangers in the land of Egypt, and you saw the harrying that Egypt harried you and that I took vengeance for you, 'since I see see the tear of the oppressed who has no comforter and has no power from the hand of their oppressors' and I save every person 'from the hand of one stronger than he.' And so [too], do not afflict the widow and the orphan, since I hear their cries. As all of these do not rely on themselves and [so] upon Me do they rely. And in a different verse, it adds another reason (Exodus 23:9), "and you know the soul of a stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt." This is to say, you know that the soul of any stranger is lowly towards himself, and he sighs and cries, and his eyes are always to God - and He will have mercy upon him, as He had mercy upon you, as it is written (Exodus 2:23), "and the Children of Israel sighed from the work and they cried out, and their prayer ascended to God, from the work." This is to say that not because of their merit [did God hear], but rather He had mercy upon them due to their [heavy] work.
(ט) וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃(9) You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.
That is what makes these two commands so significant. The Torah emphasizes the point time and again: the rabbis said that the command to love the stranger appears 36 times in the Torah. Jewish law is here confronting directly the fact that care for the stranger is not something for which we can rely on our normal moral resources of knowledge, empathy and rationality. Usually we can, but under situations of high stress, when we feel our group threatened, we cannot. The very inclinations that bring out the best in us – our genetic inclination to make sacrifices for the sake of kith and kin – can also bring out the worst in us when we fear the stranger. We are tribal animals and we are easily threatened by the members of another tribe.
Note that these commands are given shortly after the exodus. Implicit in them is a very radical idea indeed. Care for the stranger is why the Israelites had to experience exile and slavery before they could enter the Promised Land and build their own society and state. You will not succeed in caring for the stranger, implies God, until you yourselves know in your very bones and sinews what it feels like to be a stranger. And lest you forget, I have already commanded you to remind yourselves and your children of the taste of affliction and bitterness every year on Pesach. Those who forget what it feels like to be a stranger, eventually come to oppress strangers, and if the children of Abraham oppress strangers, why did I make them My covenantal partners?
Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image – says G-d – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Can we read the Torah’s injunctions to not oppress the stranger as a push against basic human urges to make the other, well, other? Is it a way of raising us above the instincts we wish we didn’t have? Perhaps the goal of not oppressing the stranger is not simply a law to be followed, but rather a moral north star, inspiring empathy.
Maybe, then, empathy is actually at the heart of Parashat Mishpatim. While we can certainly look at the laws in the parashah and consider how we might translate them into our modern lives, maybe the broader concept is a simple admission: It’s hard to live ethically. It’s hard to feel connected to those whose lives seem strange to us. It’s not necessarily intuitive. But if we follow the generations of our tradition and its fascination with Exodus 22:20 and the concept of not oppressing the stranger, we might end up, not just with more structured laws, but with a larger sense of a tradition that strives to teach empathy for its own sake.
Rabbi Ana Bonnheim
- Chayei Sara
- Ki Tisa
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