Mishpatim (Shabbat Shekalim) 5783
Ex. 21:1 – 24:18
Rabbi Gary Pokras
“You shall neither deceive a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Ex. 22:20]
Among the most prevalent recurring themes in the Torah is the missive to care for the vulnerable in our midst, and to do so from a place of empathy. We are commanded no fewer than 36 times in the Torah alone to look after the needs of the poor, the orphan, the widow, and stranger (in some combination or individually) because we know what it is like to be vulnerable. Many rabbis and commentators turn to these verses as proof of the universal social justice at the core of Judaism and Jewish values.
They are right! Many Jews turn to this and similar verses as we wrestle with political issues of the day such as immigration, unemployment, or welfare support.
However, Rabbi Joshua Minkin wonders if we should also consider a remez – something hidden below the surface but suggested by the text. He asks what “if the stranger is within you, the very part of yourself you avoid or deny”?1
None of us is perfect. We all prefer to shine light on those aspects of our character and personality which make us proud and deflect awareness and attention from those of which we are ashamed, or which threaten the values we prefer to embody. When we do this, we live out of balance with ourselves. The mussar tradition teaches us to honestly assess our character traits, and to work towards finding balance within. This, of course, is a lifelong endeavor, which we never quite complete. Thus, it is the practice more than some far-off goal of perfection, which matters most. When we deny or reject parts of who we are, we effectively stunt our spiritual growth and enter a dysfunctional relationship with ourselves. When we are in a dysfunctional relationship with ourselves, we are more likely to project that dysfunction onto others, and our relationships will suffer as well. And, taking this to the next level, this kind of dysfunction leads to “othering” at best, and bigotry or even hatred, at worst.
In other words, we are most likely to take care of the vulnerable in our midst, when we recognize, embrace, and work through our own vulnerabilities.