February 24th: Mishpatim
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) was a third generation Hassid—that is, a disciple of a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. As he learned and formulated his own approach to Hassidism, he founded his own movement and called it Chabad, an acronym for Chochmah (Wisdom), Binah (Understanding), and De’ah (Knowledge). His most famous work was a book called the Tanya, and, in it, one of his most important teachings regarded transparency. His belief was that we could train ourselves to perceive God’s presence in every part of creation—that, with the proper vision, everything and everyone would become transparent and thus reveal God’s creative presence and process. It is a very compelling notion and one that can be quite helpful in developing a spiritual approach to life.
Step One would be learning to perceive God’s creative presence in the creation. Like sensing the master craftsman Stradivarius in his incredible violins, transparency involves realizing that all creation comes from God—and is a part of God. With this insight comes a feeling of connection to the holiness and divine energy that surrounds and includes us all.
Step Two would be learning to perceive God’s creative presence and possibility in every human being. We are taught that we are created “in the image of God” in Genesis 1, and vision with transparency allows us to see the divinity in each and every human being. Some obscure this holiness and divinity pretty well, but it is there, and our awareness calls us to a holy response.
Step Three would be learning to perceive God’s creative presence and possibility in ourselves. We too are created “in the image of God.” We too are worth cherishing and treasuring, and we too have holy potential. Are we going to use the incredible soul—that spark of God—which has been placed within? We were created to bring God into the world, and we should be delighted with the prospect of manifesting our divine potential.
The value of transparency is explored this week in Parshat Mishpatim in a simple but very important passage. Actually, it is a passage that is repeated. We first read it in Exodus 22.20:
“You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”
Just as we were human beings in Egypt, and just as oppressing us was wrong, we should realize that the strangers who abide among us are human beings, too. We should not treat them as the Egyptians treated us. All human beings are created in the “image of God” and deserve to be treated fairly and with respect.
This seems a pretty straight forward mitzvah, but, in the very next chapter, it is stated again with some extra psychological oomph: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, seeing that you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23.9) It is not just a matter of seeing God’s presence in the stranger, it is a matter of seeing God’s presence in ourselves AND of knowing how hurtful it is to be oppressed. We (and the spark of God inside us) know the pain of oppression, and we are bidden to remember and extend the kindness that we and every other human embodiment of God deserve.
There are obviously political implications of this mitzvah. Kindness to strangers is part and parcel of our Jewish moral sensibility—and our American moral aspirations. As much as we have welcomed the “tired, the hungry, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” there is still much work to be done in our society and nation, but, there is more to this mitzvah.
I believe that this mitzvah of not oppressing strangers needs to be a part of our daily and general social behaviors—and not just in regard to foreigners. Remember, a stranger can be anyone who is different or ill at ease. Think of our own variations of strangeness—those times when we just do not seem to fit in or feel comfortable. These are times of great vulnerability, and we “know the heart of the stranger”—how callous treatment or disrespect hurts and creates painful memories that each and every one of us carries as part of our emotional baggage.
Let me give you two examples that are certainly not headline-grabbing but which nonetheless speak to the mitzvah of not oppressing the stranger.
The story is told of a college president who made it a habit to invite new faculty members to dinner. This was back in the late 19th Century when many of the new faculty were from humble backgrounds and climbing their way up the social ladder with their education and devotion to knowledge. One can imagine how special they felt being invited to the president’s home and seated at a fancy table. The problem was that the president always served artichokes—whole steamed artichokes—and sat back, enjoying the new faculty member’s consternation as he tried to figure out what to do with this strange food. Call it hazing or oppression or whatever, the message was clear to the young men: you may have worked your way up the ladder, but you are still below people of refinement and culture. You are still a stranger.
Contrast that story of social alienation with the comment of Rabbi Abraham Cronbach (1882-1965). Well known as a pacifist and a beloved teacher at the Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Cronbach was one of those people who saw God’s presence in everyone and everything else. Once, when chaperoning a dance, he said, “If I could live my life over again, I would go from party to party and dance only with the wallflowers.” There are certainly worse fates than being a wallflower at a dance, and yet their loneliness and rejection and public humiliation is real and alienating. Would that we could soothe every alienated or estranged heart, welcome everyone who is somehow strange, and give every human being the love and respect they deserve.
As Rabbi Chaim Stern prayed, “Let every wanderer come home from the bitterness of exile”—whether that exile is abroad or at home.
May we be blessed with the vision to see the Creator in every creation, and may we open our arms and our spirits, welcoming every stranger and drawing them close.