Mishpatim: When We Are Stranger To Our Self

Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, begins in earnest the discussion regarding law; a discussion that continues today. The portion jumps right in to the discussion with the opening “These are the laws/judgements/ordinances that you shall set before them” (Exodus 21:1). This portion sets a foundation for the rest of Torah in describing how society is to be conducted and how those actions will be based on a non wavering relationship with God. There are many famous passsages in the portion. each worthy of their own lengthy comment. They exist in many places. Such subjects as rules regarding capital crimes, abortion, the famous “eye for eye” (Exodus 21), interest (22:4) and the famous affirmation by the people accepting the responsibility of the covenant “we shall do and we shall hear) (na’aseh v’nishmah-Exodus 24:7.) There are many additional statements that form the basis for much of subsequent “halachah”.
But, once again, Torah seems to be able to speak to our own world. “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20) and “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt”.(22:9) Ok, so the insight into the current political discussion about immigration is pretty obvious. It does present an interesting ethical challenge for many. After all, the bulk of the American Jewish community can trace our roots to some other country. We remember this symbolically every Passover. Much of the textual basis for this begins here in Mishpatim.
As I was thinking of this passage, it reminded me that so often fear of the stranger, of “the other” is, I feel. a manifestation of the fact that someone may be a stranger to their own self. Fear is at the heart of this. We experienced this fear throughout our history and, sadly, the recent outbreaks of anti-semitism in the USA only serve to reinforce the fact that too many people are strangers to their own souls. Their fear of the stranger gets played out in dangerous ways. Fear of the “other” is as old as civilization. No group in history is immune, including us. Probably that is one of the reasons for these statements int he portion. The we become isolated from our own soul, when we become slaves to some feelings of hurt or perceived rejection by someone who is “not like us”, we allow that “evil inclination”, that “yetzer ha’ra” to occupy our soul. It is an exile of the soul and self, an exile that breeds destructive actions and thoughts. Perhaps this portion, and the comments that will flow by my colleagues this Shabbat on these verses, will allow some of those who live in fear to see the light of reason and thus begin the first step to remembering that we were all, in some way, slaves in Egypt and thus, are commanded to not oppress those who may be not like us.
Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Richard F Address

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