January 23, 2014
Perhaps the most important letter in the Torah is the first letter in our Sedra. Look at Rashi’s comment.
Exodus, Chapter 21
1. And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them. א. וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם:
And these are the ordinances: Wherever it says, “these” [in the Torah,] the word is used to separate from what has been stated previously. [Where it says,] “And these,” [it means that] it is adding to what has been previously stated (Tanchuma Mishpatim 3). [Thus] just as what has been previously stated [namely the Ten Commandments,] were from Sinai, these too were from Sinai.
613 not 10 commandments were given at Sinai. Commandments not suggestions, and not one of them has been rescinded!
Later our Parsha enumerates many of the “Laws Between Man and man”. A common theme is that the strong is accountable for his treatment of the weak. The person with the upper hand is to be mindful of those weaker than he and treat them with the respect that he would his equals.
This point is made at the very beginning of the Parsha when the laws of treating one’s servant are discussed. The emphasis is on the servant leaving his master and his servitude (the term “going out” appears seven times in this section – an indication of its importance).
Rashi gives two reasons for not abusing a stranger in two different verses in our Sedra.
20. And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. כ. וְגֵר לֹא תוֹנֶה וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:
וגר לא תונה: אונאת דברים
Rashi : for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: If you taunt him, he can also taunt you and say to you, “You too emanate from strangers.” Do not reproach your neighbor with a fault that is also yours (Mechilta, B.M. 59b). Every expression of a stranger (גֵּר) means a person who was not born in that country but has come from another country to sojourn there.
כי גרים הייתם: אם הוניתו, אף הוא יכול להונותך ולומר לך אף אתה מגרים באת, מום שבך אל תאמר לחברך. כל לשון גר, אדם שלא נולד באותה מדינה, אלא בא ממדינה אחרת לגור שם:
Rashi seems to be saying that a reason for not abusing the stranger is that he may get even with you and abuse you in response! This is quite an egotistical motivation for not being unjustly abusive. The Torah mentions 36 different times that we should be decent to those less fortunate, because we too suffered at the hands of the Egyptians. Is this the meaning for this oft-repeated phrase – that we should think twice because he can strike back at us and hurt us too?
Another verse in our Parsha gives a very similar command.
9. And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
ט. וְגֵר לֹא תִלְחָץ וְאַתֶּם יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:
the feelings of the stranger: How hard it is for him when people oppress him.
את נפש הגר: כמה קשה לו כשלוחצים אותו:
Here Rashi emphasizes the emotional empathy that one should feel for the stranger because the Jew has “been there” and should be able to appreciate his suffering. So, he should not make it any worse by abusing him.
These two comments of Rashi suggest two very different reasons for being decent to the stranger. One, a self-centered, “take care of yourself” attitude; the other, an empathetic identification with the stranger’s plight which will prompt us to treat him fairly. Why the difference?
The Torah actually makes the difference. In one place it mentions: “You know the soul of the stranger” ; in the other place it does not.
One might want to believe that if a person experienced cruelty himself, he would be quite sensitive to this and be careful not to be abusive to others. Unfortunately people are not always that way. We know that abused children may become abusive parents. Although these parents themselves experienced the terror of such abuse, they could nevertheless perpetrate it on their own children. So having been slaves in Egypt may not be enough of a motivation for some people. These people who are not moved by others’ suffering, are appealed to by striking a self-centered theme. Treat everybody nicely when you are on the way up. You might meet them again when you are on the way down!
Yet there are more loving, more caring more sensitive people in the world. For these the Torah reminds them that they “know the soul of the stranger” and thus should be careful not to hurt their feelings.
We see how the Torah appeals to all kinds of people, making sure that these different personalities are spoken to according to their viewpoint.
As my Rebbe zatza”l used to say – This is why the Torah is eternal. It is because basic human nature and the human condition do not change and the Torah speaks to human nature and the human condition.
Rabbi Meir Wise