“These are the rules (mishpatim) that you shall set before them” (Exodus 21:1). With this brief sentence, we see the outline of society. This portion begins to detail the rules and regulations, laws and ordinances that emerge from Torah. They are the “stuff” that holds together, we hope, a society, for without rules, laws and regulations, we have chaos. This portion details a wide variety of such mishpatim; from family relationships, to social constructs; from interpersonal relationships and rituals and more. Some of these seem strange to us in the 21st century, perhaps harsh and cruel, but take them in context.
Torah, we know, speaks in many ways to our world. This, it is no surprise that so many colleagues will choose to speak this week on a few verses that will be familiar to us all. Take, for example, 22:20 “You shall not wrong the stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. Or 23:9: “You shall not oppress a stranger (ger) , for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt”. In his “Essays on Ethics”, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments on these verses by writing of the moral underpinnings of the text. “The great crimes of humanity have been committed against the stranger, the outsider, the one-not-like-us. Recognizing the humanity of the stranger has been the historic weak point in most cultures.” (p.113) Of course, as Sacks and hundreds of others have noted, we Jews are familiar with this issue of being the “other”!
The moral question that leaps from Torah this week is, of course, how our society is treating the stranger, the ger, the person who may seem to be “not like one of us”! Here Torah reaches out to us to call us to confront the moral challenges of allowing inequalities of people to exist, be they in income levels or immigration status. No, these are not “easy” issues, but, as Jews, Torah calls us to begin the conversation from the context of sacred text. This week’s portion is just that call.
Rabbi Richard F Address