Last week we stood once again at Sinai, remembering the power and majesty of revelation and divine presence. On the heels of the subsequent exodus from Egypt we now dive into the details of law, the social rules, moral imperatives, ethical injunctions, civil and criminal laws, as well as cultic prescriptions, that are all equally regarded as expressions of divine will. This miscellany of laws is more categorical than comprehensive, but the laws help us further understand the emerging society the Israelites are destined to create. The people, in the aftermath of Sinai are preparing to take instruction and direction. The laws are given out of love, to help them care for one another, as a way to shift their avdut as slavery to their avdut as service to God and community.
Yet, as I read the social legislation of this week’s Parashat Mishpatim, I cannot help but focus on two verses, the content of which resonates as deeply today as ever. Exodus 22:20 offers the essential teaching: “Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him/her, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and 23:9 repeats the command and adds a level of depth: “Also you shall not oppress a stranger for you know the heart of a stranger; seeing that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
These verses reflect the fundamental lesson that humans are called to create a just and gracious social order, a message repeated throughout the Torah no less than 36 times. The stranger was understood to be powerless and alone – a political and emotional reality. Nachmanides, the great medieval Spanish philosopher noted that the stranger doesn’t have family or community to come to their defense when threatened. The Torah, therefore, warns against wronging them because God is the ultimate protector of those who have no one to protect them.
Additionally, their “aloneness” meant that they may live outside the traditional securities of belonging. When the Torah teaches us not to afflict the stranger, the poor, the orphan, and the widow, it is as if God will be the first to cry out in anguish, and we must understand that terrorizing human beings because they are different in some way, is akin to terrorizing the Divine presence in the world. The stranger inside each of us must always identify with the heart of the stranger in someone else. That is what true freedom is.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks taught that to be a Jew is to be a stranger. “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is why Abraham is commanded to leave land, home and father’s house; why he is told that his descendants would be “strangers in a land not their own”; why Moses had to suffer personal exile before assuming leadership of the people; why the Israelites underwent persecution before inheriting their own land; and why the Torah is so insistent that this experience – the retelling of the story on Pesach, along with the never-forgotten taste of the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery – should become a permanent part of their collective memory.”
Indeed, our memories of bondage and exile are meant to protect us against the impulses of exploitation, oppression, and xenophobia. A history of alienation and slavery, the memories of humiliation and strangeness are meant to prevail against intolerance.
Our collective memory, however, is often short-lived, and we must remain vigilant against collective forgetting. In recent weeks we have seen such amnesia at work in the executive orders that target Muslims, undocumented immigrants, and transgender people; and in the rise in anti-Semitic incidents and the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis.
We must not lose our moral courage, and we must continue to fight against the ill treatment of those in our community who are powerless and alone – whether politically or emotionally. To forget this teaching is to return to the narrowness and constriction of Egypt. To forget this teaching is to forget ourselves.