22 February 2017
This week’s parasha, Mishpatim, begins with ve’eleh hamishpatim (AND these are the rules). In last week’s Torah portion, the Children of Israel received The Ten Commandments, the first of the laws of the covenant between God and Israel. More of these laws are presented this week and are collectively known as “The Book of the Covenant.”
The conjunction “and” which begins this week’s portion serves to link the Ten Commandments and the numerous laws outlined in this portion. Criminal, ethical and civil laws are intertwined, reflecting the complexity of societal interactions within the Israelite community. But, as more than one commentator points out, there are more laws in the Torah about protection of the stranger than any other, including, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
There is a great deal of talk these days about the strangers among us. Not only were we all strangers in the land of Egypt, but virtually all of us were strangers here in the United States. My grandparents came over in the early 1900’s, seeking refuge in the United States, a land they called in Yiddish, die goldene medina – the golden country. When I was young and asked my grandparents about the “old country,” they only replied, “It was terrible. Now go play.” They didn’t speak of their time in Russia and Ukraine, but gave up everything for the hope of a new life for themselves and their family. I am a direct beneficiary of their judgment and tenacity, and so are millions and millions of Americans.
The linkage of the Ten Commandments with the plethora of laws presented in this week’s parasha is both powerful and timely. The most basic code of human behavior is but a preamble to the complex system guiding human interactions. And within these, the laws concerning the treatment of the stranger are cited most often. As Jews, we remember that we were once – and often – oppressed by others. We have a special responsibility to reach out and lend a helping hand to the stranger among us.