Parashat Mishpatim – For you were strangers in the land of Egypt

Last week’s parashah contained a magnificent description of the revelation at Mount Sinai. God revealed Godself and gave the Decalogue. The “Ten Commandments” represent the first laws of the mutual covenant between God and Israel, and this week’s parashah contains more of these laws. Our sages pointed out that our parashah starts with the Hebrew word for “and”: “ve’eleh hamishpatim” (and these are the rules), indicating a direct connection between the Decalogue and the laws following this week.

What is remarkable about this collection of laws in the covenant is the combination of criminal, civil, and ethical law entwined together. Thus, amid laws dealing with safekeeping of property, seduction, sorcery, bestiality, idolatry, and blasphemy are humanitarian laws dealing with the protection of the ger (stranger), the widow, the orphan, and the poor. These four groups constitute the classic biblical categories of disadvantaged people: those without power and without legal protectors, who must depend on the good will of society to help them. Of all the laws concerning the disadvantaged, there is one that is constantly repeated in many parts of the Torah: the law enjoining the Israelites not to oppress the stranger. It is an astonishing fact that the Bible has more laws dealing with the protection of the stranger than with any other law, including honouring God, observing Shabbat, festivals, etc. Obviously, for the biblical legislator, concern for the stranger was considered a religious value of supreme importance.

The reason given for not wronging the stranger is only an ethical one: the Israelites were once strangers in a foreign land and so can empathise with the experience of foreigners in their own land.

But not all of our sages were convinced that mere empathy with the stranger’s plight would be sufficient protection. They were quite familiar with cases of former downtrodden people, now in power, becoming worse oppressors. The Israelites should not think that they could oppress strangers with impunity as if they had no source of help. They do have a source of help: God. Just as the Israelites had the help of God when they were strangers in Egypt, so will divine assistance, ultimately, help the stranger in Israel.

For two thousand years Jews have been strangers and religious minorities in foreign lands. We have suffered discrimination and persecution solely for being religious strangers. Now that we life in a time were we have religious freedom and the right to express ourselves, we must constantly remember that not long ago we were strangers in many Egypts.

We must ensure that all present-day strangers around us will not be subject to discrimination or coercion, and that the sensibilities of all minorities will be respected.

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Adrian M Schell  (Source: Prof. David Marcus)

Torah Reading Shabbat Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1-24:18 (Ex 22:27 – 23:22)
Plaut p. 519; Hertz p. 315

Haftarah: II Kings 12:5-16
Plaut p. 1451; Hertz p. 992

In our Torah Portion: •  Interpersonal laws ranging from the treatment of slaves to the exhibition of kindness to strangers are listed. (21:1-23:9) • Cultic laws follow, including the commandment to observe the Sabbatical Year, a repetition of the Sabbath injunction, the first mention of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals, rules of sacrificial offerings, and the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. (23:10-19)• The people assent to the covenant. Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascend the mountain and see God. Moses goes on alone and spends forty days on the mountain. (24:1-18)

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