For all of its remoteness and antiquated formulation, Parashat Mishpatim feels extraordinarily relevant and timely to me. Mishpatim’s collection of ancient norms and rules reveals, upon closer reading, a compelling and contemporary collection of ethical principles and thoughtful personal practices.
One example, among many possible candidates, tells the story. On thirty six occasions, the Torah articulates a warning to love, or care for, or not harm, or not oppress the stranger, the Biblical ger. Two of the Torah’s ‘stranger alerts’ appear in Mishpatim, with explanatory rationales attached. Version one reads: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Version two, perhaps an expansion (?), proclaims: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
You were strangers, hence you know what it feels like to be a stranger. Therefore, don’t oppress a stranger. Simple enough.
Two pieces of medieval commentary dramatically expand the category, serving up a cluster of ethical principles that could (should!) be applied to any one of a number of contemporary questions.
Abraham Ibn Ezra, a 12th century polymath as the title of a collection of essays devoted to his work and thought puts it, lets us know that you (we, I) must not oppress a stranger because you (we, I) are more powerful than s/he. Doing harm to one who is weaker, suggests Ibn Ezra, is the essential offense, whether that individual is a stranger, a widow, an orphan, not to mention an immigrant, a refugee, a person who enjoys less privilege, etc…You (we, I) get the point!
Ibn Ezra offers us more. Seeing it happen, and neglecting, failing, declining, to step in to assist the oppressed renders us (you, me) oppressors in our own right. Ibn Ezra’s high bar means that there is no such thing as ‘innocent’ by standing. Once we (you) are aware we’re (you’re) obligated to act.
And Moses ben Nahman, a 13th century giant (known by his initials – Ramban), reads Mishpatim’s two warnings about strangers to mean this: “you know that the soul of any stranger is lowly towards himself, and he sighs and cries, and his eyes are always to God – and God will have mercy upon him, as God had mercy upon you.” When it comes to strangers, teaches Ramban, empathy and compassion are the order of the day.
Strangers, widow, orphans. Fill in the contemporary analogue. The Torah’s ethic couldn’t be more clear. Don’t oppress; don’t inappropriately take advantage of your power; don’t stand by when others oppress the less powerful; respond with empathy; above all, summon up your compassion. Nothing antiquated or remote about that.