Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha



Larchmont Temple—Har Chayim

The F*-WORD…[F _ _ _ _]…Questions, Conflicts & Connection of FAITH



Mishpatim—Exodus 22:20-23; 23:6-13


 …Key KOSHI…

HOW does upholding the rights of the stranger

help us hold onto WHO we are?




22:20   You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt

MEKHILTA“You shall not vex him” —- With words…. “Nor shall you oppress him” — With money.

You should not say: Yesterday you worshipped Ba’Al, prostrated yourself to Nebo, and pork is still stuck in your teeth, yet you have the audacity (read: ‘chutzpah’)  to argue with me!

RASHBAM“Do not oppress him”—to do your work, since he has no champion, as we remember it written: “I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppressed them.” (Exod 3:9)  And since “you know the feelings of the stranger, seeing you were strangers…” (Exod 23:9) the severity of punishment will match the intensity of his misery.

NECHAMA“Do not oppress—Lo Til’ChaTZeNu”  The verb “lachatz” does not recur in Torah

between “I have also seen the oppression…” (Exod 3:9) and this verse…The stylistic device, implying

a kind of “squeezing” links, by verbal association, Israel’s suffering as strangers in Egypt. 

We are bidden to put ourselves in the position of the Ger, recalling how it felt—“lachatz”

RASHI“for you were strangers…”  If you abuse him, he, too, can abuse you back, and say in return:

“You also started out as a stranger.”  So do not accuse your fellow of a flaw that you, yourself possess…..

NECHAMA… What prompted RASHI to interpret this passage as a threat?  This seems far removed from the

sense of the text. Why does he prefer to read into it an appeal to man’s selfishness rather than a positive

demand to love others?Because a history of alienation and slavery, the memory of our own humiliation is

by itself no guarantee that you will not oppress the stranger in your own country once you’ve gained

independence and left servitude behind you.

RAMBAN…In my opinion, the correct explanation of the verse “You shall neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him

implies that you should not think that the stranger has no one to deliver him from your hands. 

On the contrary, you know that when you were strangers in Egypt…God brought vengeance upon the Egyptians…

In like manner, it is God who delivers every man from the hand of the oppressor.

23:9   You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, for strangers you were in the land of Egypt

RASHI…How painful it is when you oppress him, since “you know the feelings of that stranger.”

Remember, it is from gerim that you come.

ETZ HAYIM…This is a repetition of the substance of 22:20 with an expansion of the motive clause.

Whereas the earlier injunction was aimed at each individual Israelite, the present one is directed at the judge.  As SHADAL points out, in verse 8,  the perversion of justice resulted from familiarity between litigant and judge; here it issues from estrangement.

ALSHECH…You too lived in the land of Egypt where you worshipped idols and only thereafter embraced true faith.  Just as God did not look down on you and on account of idolatry withhold His Torah—so you must not look down upon the ger…

Do not be prejudiced against him when he appears in a lawsuit with a born Israelite and take it for granted that he must be in the wrong because of his origins.  That is why the text adds, “for you know the soul of the convert/ger,” for one who converts is regarded just as a newborn soul.  Were you not gerim—converts in Egypt, idol worshippers who became sanctified by the blood of the Pesach offering?  Were you not a mixed multitude who cut a covenant of blood with the Lord?


23:12          Six days you shall work, but on the 7th day you shall cease from labor in order that

your ox and your ass may rest; that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.

HaKTAV V’HaKABALAH“VaYinafash—and he will catch his breath,”

This is not the purpose of, but the result of the rest prescribed.  ONKELOS translates the term as “will be calm/serene, but I believe that the key is the spiritual dimension of man…The acquisition of insights into spheres with which man would not be familiar except through his observing Shabbat, stimulate his spirit and enhance his personality…To the extent that the laborer’s soul, or the stranger’s, expands on the Sabbath, he is able to expand his mind and recharge his spiritual batteries.


22:20…You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt

MAHARAL…Why must a past of bondage and exile motivate us to have a kind and generous heart?


It would be forgivable if we permitted ourselves the solace of dwelling on our victimization as slaves in Egypt.  It was horrific; we have every reason to memorialize the terror, bask in the moral luxury of our ancient bondage.  But instead, we celebrate it.  We transform it, reshape it into the most frequently repeated explanation for any law in the entire Torah—over and over again.  Our slavery, instead of embittering us, generates an obligation to identify with anyone who is socially powerless or politically disenfranchised. “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”



The decisive event in the story of the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt was the crossing

of the Red Sea.  The sea became dry land as the waters divided.  It was a moment of supreme

spiritual exultation, of sublime joy and prophetic elevation for the entire people…Then Moses led

Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went three days into the Wilderness and found no water. 

When they came to Marah, they could not drink because it was bitter.  And they murmured

against Moses, complaining: What shall we drink?…What a comedown!

Only three days later and they complain about such a prosaic and unspiritual item as water…

The Negroes of America behave just like those Children of Israel.  In 1963 they experienced

the miracle of having turned the tide of history, the joy of finding millions of Americans involved

in the struggle for human rights, the exaltation of fellowship, the March to Washington…Now, but

a few months later, they have the audacity to murmur: What shall we drink?  We want

adequate education, decent housing, proper employment.’  How ordinary, how unpoetic,

how annoying!…

I should qualify the statement I made before.  Most of us, black and white, have not yet completed

the crossing of the Red Sea.  There is still a long way to go.  In fact, it was easier for the Children

of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for the Civil Rights legislation to pass the floor of the United

States Senate.

Pharaoh was a lover of distinctions.  I will let some of you go; the rest of you stay!…

The tragedy of Pharaoh was the failure to realize that the exodus from slavery could have

spelled redemption for both Israel and Egypt….The Negro problem adds a spiritual purpose to our

lives as Americans: no person can be kept apart.  All men are involved in the predicament of one man.

…The validity of the idea of equality, so precious to all of us, must not be taken for granted.  Unless

we continue to be fighting witnesses, unless we live it, it might die on our lips.  Let us remember

that equality of all men, regardless of race, culture and religion, is still not universally accepted

in our own day…Hailed by Thomas Jefferson as a self-evident truth, it has been denounced by

William Sumner as a flagrant falsehood.  Recalled by Abraham Lincoln as the proposition to

which this nation is dedicated, it has been branded by Calhoun as an absurd hypothesis…

…The challenge we face is a test of our integrity.  We are all on trial…The issue is not political or

social expediency.  The issue is whether we are morally strong, whether we are spiritually

worthy to answer God’s demand…The problem we face is to be or not to be human.

…The plight of the Negro is a living reminder of our failure…We are involved in a major legal and

social revolution, but we fail to realize we also face a spiritual emergency: the need for all of us to

change our image of the Negro and the need of the Negro to enhance his own proper image…

There is a disrespect in the hearts of many white people…The important challenge therefore is to

stop that oppressive sense of inferiority, to instill a courage—to create a vision…It will take much

love and wisdom to cure the hearts of millions who’ve endured humiliation, of being rebuffed

for so many decades as strangers.  There is nothing in the world that may be regarded as

holy as eliminating anguish, as alleviating pain.   

[From The Insecurity of Freedom, “The White Man On Trial,” pgs 101-105, Schocken, 1966]


One response to “Mishpatim

  1. Robert Saenger February 18, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

    You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

    The statements seem to presume a context in which Jews are the dominant group, as were Egyptians when the Jews lived in Egypt. It suggests being kind out of beneficence, perhaps touched by condescension, rather than from informed self-interest. Today, in a heterogeneous society, one can hope that giving the stranger a break will lead to an improved society for all. I also like the call for empathy in the second statement. That also can improve society.

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