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02.09.2018 Weekly Torah Portion

PostPosted: Fri Feb 09, 2018 9:57 pm
by RabbiMark
We often think of the revelation at Sinai as ending in last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro. Following the power and the grandeur that we witnessed in the giving of the Decalogue in last week’s parashah, we might be surprised when encountering Parashat Mishpatim, that we are still there. The Torah has for some time now provided us with long narrative pieces about our ancestors, the creation of a people, the descent into slavery, and their redemption in the Passover story. We made our way to Mount Sinai with them and witnessed the giving of the Ten Commandments. But it seems that last week we only learned the basics, the generalities of the law; this week, we begin to learn some of the specifics. The parashah begins, “These are the rules,” and we find ourselves, essentially, in a legal code, known in Hebrew as Sefer haBrit, The Book of the Covenant.

The Book of the Covenant can be broken down into a number of sections, but in general we think of this code as presenting us with social and economic ordinances. Here we are given laws on how to relate with each other. Among these ordinances, twice we see expressed a common sentiment in the Torah - how we are to treat the stranger. We are very familiar with the idea as expressed in Exodus 22:20, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Talmud in Bava Metzia (59b) tells us that we are instructed thirty-six times in the Torah regarding our treatment of the stranger. There are different formulations of this ordinance: we are commanded not to oppress the stranger, or as in this version, not to wrong or oppress the stranger. In both Vayikra and Devarim we are commanded to love this person. We are to do this, we are told, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

In the second formulation of this ordinance that appears in this week’s parashah (23:9) we are given an extra bit of information: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the nefesh of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” We are reminded here not simply that we were once strangers, but that we know the nefesh of the stranger. The word nefesh in this verse is often translated as the “feelings” of the stranger. But in our tradition this word can mean so much more. The nefesh is most commonly translated as the “soul,” but often it means “life,” and sometimes it is a stand-in for the word “person,” a human being. With the breadth of meaning and nuance that this word has, I feel as though we are missing something if we translate it simply as “feelings.” Speaking directly to the generation that left Egypt, they know the soul of the stranger because they are, in almost every way, the same people that they were in Egypt. They have lived the experiences of the stranger

It is sometimes difficult, when reading the verses that merely mention that the Israelites were strangers in the land of Egypt, to connect deeply with this rule. I read this and think about the stories of the Israelites in Egypt, but when I read in 23:9 that I know the nefesh, the life of the stranger, I am reminded of my own life as a stranger, and that those painful experiences are being called upon to foster connection with others and with my God.

For the most part, the laws of Parashat Mishpatim are directed to us as Jews and we are commanded to obey them simply because of that identity, but regarding the treatment of the stranger, we are being commanded to acknowledge another part of ourselves and to connect with another person, that stranger, on a deeper level.