Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim moves us from the experience of the great revelation at Sinai to a discussion of civil law. It begins with the mitzvah of freeing the slave in the seventh year. One must ask, given all the laws needed for a society, why is this the first mitzvah mentioned?
The laws of a society reveal the values of a society. Generally, we find that the laws further the rights of the rich and do not necessarily support the lowest socioeconomic class. In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites have just been freed from slavery. This very first law given just after the Ten Commandments emphasizes that the people should not abuse their new freedom. Torah is concerned with the least powerful in society and therefore establishes a justice system that focuses, first and foremost on the rights of the weakest.
The Torah does not invent civil law. The Code of Hammurabi precedes Torah. Torah doesn’t eradicate the past but utilizes current societal structures and transforms them. Parashat Mishpatim begins with the presumption of slavery as a norm and adds to it an element of justice. In particular, it ensures that indentured servitude may not result in lifelong slavery. One may not abuse the slave. One must take care of him, treat him with respect and offer him freedom in the seventh year of service.
Similarly, throughout this Torah portion we read repeatedly the admonition that one must not oppress the stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In fact, one great sage, Rabbi Eliezer states that the whole Torah warns against wronging the stranger 36 times, and some others say even 46 times.( Bava Metzia 59b)
And the Torah goes well beyond these admonitions and states that the stranger must be loved. “ When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your native born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am, the Lord your G-d.”( Lev. 19:33-34)
The essence of Judaism is revealed in its laws. The ongoing concern for the weakest members of the society and, especially for foreigners, sets Jewish law apart and ties it directly to the lived experience of the people. “Because you were once a stranger in a strange land” begins with the journey of Avraham who is commanded to leave his native home. His descendants will know the suffering of slavery and their descendants will eventually be taken as captives into Babylonia, Egypt, Assyria and Rome. Their descendants will know what it is to live in a ghetto in many lands and later face expulsion from many of these countries. The lived experiences of the Jewish people as objects of xenophobia transcends all borders. And then we arrive at the horror of the 20th century, the Holocaust, fueled by a propaganda machine that defined the Jew as the ultimate ‘other,’ a subhuman creature to be feared. Is there another people on the face of this earth who have experienced thousands of years, living and dying as a stranger in a strange land?
These are the people, to whom the eternal voice of Torah speaks, “Love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt.” Our Torah takes a powerful and consistent stand against the tendency in every human heart to revile the stranger, the other, the one who is different. I conclude with the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who writes the following about G-d’s message to us:
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.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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