February 9th: Mishpatim
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
Most of us have had the experience of feeling strange—of being out of place physically or psychically. Though some of us have “never met a stranger” and seem to be able to negotiate most situations smoothly, there are times when we have not fit in and felt awkward, self-conscious, and perhaps even alienated. These are times of vulnerability, and the reaction of those around us—those among whom we are out of place—is very important.
In the case of our ancient Hebrew ancestors, we began our years in Egypt feeling strange but being welcomed. We were semi-nomadic shepherds in a settled agrarian society. The Egyptians, apparently, did not like the taste of lamb or the smell of sheep, so there was a social problem. However, given the great respect Pharaoh had for Joseph—and therefore Joseph’s family, Pharaoh welcomed us with a place of our own, Goshen. Our strangeness was negotiated, and our lives were good. Things changed later, however, when a new Pharaoh “did not know Joseph:” our strangeness was turned into a rationale for oppression, and we were enslaved and treated terribly.
Our experience of strangeness and both good and bad treatment leads us to two complementary ethical texts from the tradition. The first is in this week’s Torah portion. In Exodus 23.9, in the midst of dozens of very specific laws and regulations, we find an almost psychological mitzvah: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The complementary text comes from the Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat, 31a:
“Once a heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘I will be converted if you teach me the entire Torah, all of it, while I stand on one foot.’ Shammai instantly drove him away with the builder’s measure he had in his hand. The same man came before Hillel. ‘I will be converted if you teach me all the Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Hillel converted him. He said to him: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now, go and study.’”
As correct and reasonable as Shammai is, Hillel uses the opportunity to teach the convert and us an important lesson: we should think about how we do not want to be treated and then be sure to accord others the same respect and consideration we want for ourselves.
Notice also how the two passages transform a meta-experience—the oppression of a whole nation—into interpersonal advice. Though enslavement and mass murder are clearly more egregious evils, our Tradition realizes that social interactions can also have a kind of brutality, and we are urged to be kind and respectful in both the large and the small realms of life.
Let me share two competing examples. The story is told of a college president who used to invite new faculty members to dine at the presidential mansion. Given the rural setting of the college, many of the faculty were fairly poor scholars from unsophisticated backgrounds. The president’s wife knew this and would serve artichokes—full steamed artichokes—and wait to see if the new teachers knew how to eat them. Apparently, she enjoyed watching them squirm as they tried to figure out what to do with this strange-looking thing. It wasn’t murder, and it wasn’t illegal, but it was unkind to make them feel out of place and strange. One would think that she would have remembered her own moments of social unease and then not have visited similar awkwardness on her guests.
Another is a story about the famed rabbi and professor, Abraham Cronbach. He was famous for his pacifism and for his willingness to officiate at the funerals of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. After their conviction for treason, many rabbis were frightened to give them the dignity of a Jewish funeral—lest their own patriotism be questioned. But Dr. Cronbach was a man of deep conviction who adhered to principle on both the large national and small interpersonal stages. Once, when chaperoning a dance—and noticing the social awkwardness and embarrassment of those who were not invited to dance, he mused, “If I could live my youth again, I would attend all the dances and dance only with the wallflowers.”
Look into your heart and remember those awkward, embarrassing, and perhaps even painful moments where you were a stranger. Think about those feelings and remember Hillel’s words: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”
We can also remember this prayer composed by Rabbi Richard Levy:
“May we gain wisdom in our lives,
Overflowing like a river with understanding,
Loved, each of us, for the peace we bring to others.
May our deeds exceed our speech,
And may we never lift up our hand
But to conquer fear and doubt and despair.
Rise up like the sun, O God, over all humanity.
Cause light to go forth over all the lands between the seas.
And light up the universe with the joy
Of wholeness, of freedom, and of peace.”