Society and the Stranger

Mishpatim By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Feb 5, 2005 / 5765 | Israel Social Justice

Sensitivity to the plight of the stranger stands at the core of Parashat Mishpatim. With debates raging over migrant workers in the United States and the treatment of foreign laborers in Israel, our Torah reading could not come at a more appropriate time. Just a few weeks ago, the Jerusalem Report ran a cover story on the plight of the foreign–worker community in Israel. Official estimates put the number of such workers at around 200,000. Ina Friedman, a journalist for the Jerusalem Report writes, “charges range from repeatedly employing illegals… to exploiting or abusing legal foreign workers, including housing them in subhuman conditions and simply defrauding them… Contractors may obtain permits to bring in workers for fictional construction projects and then rent them out for a fee. Or farmers obtain permits to import laborers for their fields and then rent their land to others – with workers going to the highest bidder.” Friedman continues, noting that foreign laborers “are often treated like slaves.” Their supervisors are “confiscating their passports, withholding their salaries… and leaving them deep in debt.” How does our parashah shed light on the treatment of foreign workers and more generally, strangers in our midst?

Coming immediately after the revelation at Sinai, it is noteworthy that the parashah is consumed with the proper treatment of a servant and stranger.

Notably, ten ordinances are issued at the opening of the parashah relating to the protection of a slave. Even more significantly, Exodus 22 proclaims, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Commenting on this verse, the prolific medieval commentator, Rashi, explains that wronging a stranger refers to the use of harsh speech; and oppressing a stranger refers to being abusive in deed, for example, through economic oppression. Exodus 23:9 adds a further dimension: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” What is the reason given for not oppressing the stranger? It is because of the personal experience of the Israelite in Egypt. Having suffered the bitterness of enslavement, the Israelite knows well the depth of misery. Professor Ze’ev Falk of blessed memory, points out two approaches to this teaching (Falk, Divrei Torah, Ad Tumam 187–188). First, we are reminded that the ‘experience of our ancestors is a sign unto their decendants’ (ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim) – our ancestors, both individually and collectively, were strangers themselves. Second, this commandment is connected to Imitatio Dei, acting in the sacred Image of God. For it is God who takes note of our plight in Egypt and delivers us to freedom (see Exodus 3:7–9). Accordingly, we must be attentive to those in need – we must hear their cry, know their pain, and respond with the same kind of lovingkindness, that God has responded with, to us.

In the Summer 2004 issue of Conservative Judaism, David Breakstone discusses the new vision of Masorti Judaism (the Conservative Movement in Israel), which he calls, itzuv Eretz Yisrael – shaping Israel into an exemplary society. He writes, “A Jewish home in the land of Israel has been secured, Jews from around the world have been brought home, and the doors of immigration remain open. The IDF has the responsibility for protecting Israel, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the responsibility for advocating on its behalf. To the rest of us falls the responsibility for making of it the exemplary society envisioned by our prophets, from Moshe Rabbenu to Theodor Herzl” (Breakstone, “The Mitzvah of Fashioning Israel and an Exemplary Society,” Conservative Judaism, 18). Our task however, I humbly submit, is broader and loftier. We must engage in itzuv ha–am – shaping the entire Jewish people into an exemplary society. Only then can we aspire to the sensitive and holy vision expressed by Torah.

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.