In the middle of Parashat Mishpatim, a Torah portion full of laws, we find arguably the most important law in the Torah. These laws, given immediately after revelation at Sinai, after the Ten Commandments, are meant to be a guide to how to build a society. These mitzvot, commandments, are bein adam l’chavero, are about interpersonal relationships. They are about how we treat our fellow.
And right in the middle of these laws we find “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9). The commandment to love, welcome, support, and not oppress the stranger appears more times than any other commandment in the Torah – more than observance of the Sabbath, observance of dietary laws, or even belief in God. One can easily deduce how important it is based on how often the commandment is mentioned.
Yet, I am actually perplexed that it is mentioned here at all. The Israelites crossed a split sea, leaving behind 400 years of being a stranger in a strange land, only two Torah portions ago. How could they have already forgotten to not oppress the stranger? How could they have already forgotten that they themselves were once strangers?
I believe it is not that they forgot, but rather that they needed to be reminded, because human instinct teaches us the opposite. After experiencing oppression, human instinct is to oppress another, lest we become oppressed again. Many who are guilty of assault, violence, and bullying were themselves once victims of such acts and as long as one is the oppressor, they are not the oppressed. The Israelites needed to be reminded to not oppress the stranger out of concern that they would to ensure that they themselves didn’t become oppressed.
But if we only think about ourselves, then we fail – we fail at life and fail as God’s partners in creating this world. Our lives are intertwined. Just as we expect allies to stand with us in oppression, then we must stand with others. We must be reminded to do so. We must be reminded because we were once oppressed, we were once strangers – and how easily we could become strangers again.
Let us take inspiration from the repetition of this command, from the importance of this command. Let it define us as Jews and let it inspire us in how we act.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky