Following the Ten Commandments we read last week in Parashat Yitro, most of Parashat Mishpatim focuses on listing additional mitzvot (commandments) about Jewish law and practice. What is special about this week’s parashah is that it illustrates the daily conflicts relevant to communities in the specific time and place in which the text was written. For example, conflicts regarding slaves and witchcraft are highlighted alongside issues related to domestic violence, revenge, financial matters, theft, treatment of the less fortunate and bribery.
By listing a generous number of laws, the parashah tries to help bridge gaps between people and create ideal Jewish morals to justly solve conflicts. One mitzvah that stands out is: “You shall not wrong a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20).
Rashi comments on the words “wrong” and “oppress,” the two adjectives used to describe this mitzvat lo ta’aseh, or action from which one needs to abstain. The specific Hebrew word used for “wrong” in the text is תונה (toneh), which Rashi interprets to mean, “do not vex [the stranger] with words.”
In regards to תלחצנו (telhetzenu), or to oppress, Rashi explains that oppression would be manifested by robbing the stranger of money.
Rashi gives specific guidelines for how we must treat the stranger, or ger. He explains that the words we use to speak to and about those who are different from us matter; we must not upset the ger, nor should we put any additional financial pressure on him or her. Rashi then also clarifies that gerim are people who live in a country that they are not originally from, referring to the last part of pasuk 20: “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.
Rather than presenting the ger as an external part of the community when breaking down the most practical community laws, Parashat Mishpatim presents the ger as an essential player. The ger gets a seat at the table with a long list of other rules governing our interpersonal (“ben adam lechavero”) relationships that make up the daily interactions of community life. By strategically placing mitzvot related to the ger in the middle of the community’s hustle and bustle, the parashah illustrates that this is at the heart of the entire endeavour: the way we treat the ger cannot be sidelined. He or she is integral to the community and therefore integral to Jewish law and what Jewish life is based on. It’s therefore fitting that laws about the ger are mentioned 35 (!) additional times throughout the Torah.
The parashah teaches us that social justice, inclusion and equity are in fact Jewish values that help us build better communities. Like the laws stated in the parashah, I hope that together we can continue building a community that welcomes new faces and sees them as integral parts of our Ramah Wisconsin puzzle. Together, we can ensure that our “laws” reflect our values, that our rituals reflect our beliefs, and that the way we treat each other truly creates a kehila k’dosha, a holy community. Shabbat shalom!