This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1 – 24:18.
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, begins with the line, “And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them.” In the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva expands on this verse, explaining that it indicates that whenever possible, an educator must explain to his or her students the reasons behind the commandments (Eruvin 54b).
I believe that the role of a Jewish educator is to create opportunities for learners to engage with Jewish texts, culture, history and practices in ways that are personally meaningful.
For a learner to glean value from Jewish tradition, it’s not enough to just hear a list of laws and standards and be expected to carry them forth. Rather, a learner must be given the opportunity to explore the layers of meaning in the text, to understand the intention behind them.
Mishpatim is a list of laws; each one is worth delving deeply into. Within this parsha, we find some of the core teachings that govern the interactions between human beings. It’s here that we see that God is concerned with the weakest members of society, the ones who are the most susceptible to abuse. It is written, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan” (Exodus 22:21-22).
In ancient times, the stranger, the widow and the orphan, were the people most at risk for mistreatment. In a society governed by tribes, and with members of each tribe relying on one another for protection and sustenance, anyone without strong tribal affiliations would have been a primary target for abuse. Women who lacked a husband to advocate for them, children who lacked a father to provide for them, and non-Israelites who were completely foreign to the group, could easily be overlooked at best and intentionally harmed at worst.
What’s interesting to me is the reasoning behind this clause: We are not to mistreat others because we know what it’s like to be the stranger.
When the Israelites were in Egypt, they were weak, and the dominant population did oppress the stranger in their midst. Our nation was initially shaped as we emerged from victimhood into a new era of self-determination. It would have been easy to fall into the pattern of becoming dominant and forgetting the traumas of the past. But this admonition, which is repeated twice in this parsha, ensures that won’t happen.
Scholar Nechama Leibowitz stated that the continuous reminder of the Exodus from Egypt is for this reason: “The memory of the experience of slavery is meant to shape our relationships with our fellow man, and to create within us awareness and empathy for his suffering.”
Our own good fortune does not take away our responsibility to care for and protect those who are not in our situation. It’s easy for the stranger to be isolated, ashamed or simply overlooked. But Jewish tradition is for us to step outside of our own families, social circles and tribes, and to look at our whole society as important and worth respect.
Today, there is sadly no shortage of examples of segments of the global population who are regularly taken advantage of simply because they’re vulnerable. My blessing for us is that instead of taking advantage, we take responsibility, and use our shared memory to ensure that we care for and respect those who are strangers to us.
Questions for discussion:
Who do you rely on?
Who is considered a stranger to you? Who might you be a stranger to?
Who are the people or groups in our society that are vulnerable? How can we take care of them?
Samantha Vinokor is the Jewish teen engagement and philanthropy associate at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.