Mishpatim: Do Not Oppress the Stranger. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat ...

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I haven’t counted them to confirm this number, but evidently the Torah has 304,805 letters.   

 

According to a principle of rabbinic exegesis -- that is, scriptural interpretation -- not even one of these 304,805 letters is superfluous.  Each has meaning.  Therefore, whenever there is repetition, such as the famous verse in Deuteronomy 16:20  צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף -- justice, justice you shall pursue -- the rabbis assign diverse interpretations to each of the repeated words.  

 

What, then, are we to make of the extreme repetition of one of the verses in Torah, “You shall not wrong a stranger.”  It appears twice in this week’s parashah alone, Mishpatim, at Exodus 22:20 and again at 23:9, and an incredible thirty-six times in Torah! 

 

The ostensible reason for this mitzvah is usually stated right along with it:

אַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

 

You know the soul of the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt.  You know how it feels to be ostracized, marginalized, hated, and oppressed.  Empathy is therefore required of you.

 

Okay, that explains the reason for the commandment.  But it doesn’t explain why this admonition is repeated over and over and over, three dozen times -- and some say 46 times. After all, there are many other very important mitzvot that aren’t repeated even once in Torah, and others only twice, such as the so-called “Ten Commandments.”  So, what is going on with this one?

 

Perhaps this extraordinary repetition is intended to emphasize a dark aspect of our nature.  Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out that many of us do not learn from our own suffering not to inflict suffering on others.  The last people we would expect to abuse their children are those who themselves were abused as children, but, in fact, they are far more likely to do so than adults who were not abused. 

 

Similarly, historians have often explained the widespread German support for Nazism as a response, in part, to the severe terms the Allies imposed on the Germans at the end of World War I. In short, Rabbi Telushkin tells us, suffering is often not an ennobling teacher. But that is exactly what the Torah demanded of the Israelites, and continues to demand of Jews today: Learn from the bad treatment you have experienced at the hands of others not to treat others in the same way. 

 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out that even the most universal of religions, founded on principles of love and compassion, have often seen those outside the faith as Satan, the infidel, the antichrist, a child of darkness, the unredeemed. They have committed unspeakable acts of brutality in the name of G-d. The great crimes of humanity have been committed against the stranger, the outsider, the one-not-like-us. Rabbi Sacks taught us that recognizing the humanity of the stranger has been a historic weak link in most cultures. Even with the Statute of Liberty lifting her lamp beside the golden door, in the words of poet and Jewish activist Emma Lazarus, we know that strangers and minorities in our own country have been and still are subject to discrimination and many other misfortunes.  

 

And so, perhaps the reason that “You shall not oppress the stranger” is repeated over and over and over in Torah is to emphasize that we must constantly fight to overcome our ingrained bias against, and even revulsion of, those who are different than we are.  

 

To accomplish this, I believe, more is required of us than merely refraining from acts of overt oppression.  Benign neglect -- if neglect can ever actually be benign -- is also a form of oppression, especially when we are also commanded to pursue justice.  Not just to do justice, but to actively pursue it.  

 

In our polarized and quarantined society, anyone who does not share our physical or virtual “bubble” constitutes a “stranger.”  Anyone who does not share our political views is not only a “stranger” but is too often regarded as a threat, to ourselves, our values, our nation.  These attitudes are the seeds of oppression of the stranger.  We must demonstrate that, to use the vernacular of our time, “Strangers’ lives matter.”

 

What can we do, then, from within our bubble, to obey the Torah’s incessant and insistent command not to oppress the stranger -- who can be our next-door neighbor?  The first step, I believe, is to try harder to understand what others believe and why. 

 

We can subscribe to newspapers of different editorial viewpoints, such as, in my community, the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register.  We can watch television stations and internet websites of differing political orientations, such as both CNN and Fox News.  We can train ourselves -- force ourselves, if necessary -- to listen to earnest, knowledgeable spokespersons of other views. 

 

We can discuss religion with friends and followers of other faiths.  

 

We can join groups that advocate for minorities or the poor.  And we can give money to worthy charities that do so.  

 

We can refuse to “stand idly-by” -- or simply sit at our computers -- but object to discriminatory, hateful, and xenophobic comments whenever we read or hear them.  The Torah also obligates us not to listen to lashon hara -- evil speech -- or to accept it when we do hear or read it. 

 

And, of course, when we personally encounter a stranger, or hear of strangers in our community, who need help, we are obligated to provide or arrange for that help. 

 

That “You shall not oppress the stranger” is stated three dozen times in the Torah should make this mitzvaha continuous priority in our lives.  Doing so will not only help us to “Do the Right and the Good,” but to inspire others to do likewise.

 

For more information on this and other Jewish ethical topics, I invite you to visit theethicaltorah.com.


Thanks for reading this! 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb