At this point in Torah, in the telling of the Jewish Exodus journey, the land of Egypt has been left behind, and the Jews have received the Ten Commandments. Last week’s torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, goes on to list numerous laws that will govern the Jewish people. More specifically, through these laws, Jews are taught how to act towards issues regarding slavery, thievery, the needy, owning and borrowing livestock, bestiality, sorcery, crop sharing, and many more. We are shown the ancient laws of how to treat the enemy, the needy, and the stranger. Within Mishpatim it is stated, “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20) In many ways these laws seem to be stated to create order, and ensure that Jews are not taking advantage of the other, or the other's property including land and animals. If the only portion of Torah you were to ever read was parashat Mishpatim you may feel as if you were reading a series of legal documents concerning stealing your neighbor’s oxen. In many ways these series of laws seem inapplicable to the current way we live, but hidden among these laws are presently valuable ethical guidelines for treating the ‘vulnerable’ among us.
Who is not a stranger among us? Do we really live in a society where there is a clear norm, and a clear defiance of the norm we have created? What is normal, and who qualifies? I feel in so many ways individuals are constantly redefining what normal is because we feel like we just don’t fit in among everyone. Instead shouldn’t we question if ‘normal’ exists? Therefore aren’t we all strangers within any new situation? At one point we were the new comer to a community, family, or group of friends. In any new situation, we may each be a stranger in a strange land. When we venture somewhere new we want to be embraced and treated with respect and dignity, meaning we must remember to act similarly towards others entering a land we may already be familiar with as well. “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20) We must remember to not outcast the newcomer, since historically we ourselves were outcast for being ‘the other’. To me, the concept of being a stranger in a strange land is applicable to so many groups of people in both our local and global world. Some ‘strangers’ within the United States include: immigrants in their fight for citizenship; the glbt community in their quest for gay rights; differently-abled people advocating towards inclusive disability rights; feminist women eradicating gender inequalities; black Americans struggle towards racial equality; and the fight of the American muslim community against prejudice due to post September 11th racial profiling. All spend countless time in their struggle overcoming unequal treatment in the search to be treated ‘normally’. Where do we learn how to treat our neighbors? What acts as our ethical and moral guide when we come into contact with challenges in our lives that cause us to take action in either a positive or negative way?
I currently work in the world’s largest gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender inclusive synagogue, CBST (Congregation Beit Simchat Torah). Recently a man called the office to question both our mission and where in the torah I personally felt that it was ok to be gay. At first I was unaware where the nature of his questions was coming from. However, his hatred quickly became clear to me as he shouted, “being gay is an abomination.” The most upsetting part of the conversation was trying to comprehend where this fellow Jew had learned his deep seeded hate towards the ‘strangers in his midst’. I’m reminded that Judaism teaches us that each individual is created in G-d’s image “betzelem eloheim”, and parshat Mishpatim teaches us by Jewish law the opposite of this man’s oppression, we are taught rather to treat the needy, enemy and stranger with indistinguishable equality to how we treat ourselves. As a Jew, I’m astounded as to where in the torah he found laws condemning the glbt community. The Jewish laws found in Exodus protect the stranger, enemy, and needy among us. Equally, whether we are in agreement or opposition by Jewish law we shall not treat those different from ourselves with anything other than compassion, and justice. And while I strongly disagree with the position my fellow Jew takes towards strangers among him, I am taught by torah to treat my enemy just as fairly as my neighbor, the stranger, and the needy. If only we all stuck to the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated.
In concept we know to act justly towards our fellow strangers, since we were once strangers, but what are the concrete things we can do in our lives to help the vulnerable and needy among us? Rabbi Jill Jacobs in her book There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition writes about the poor among us. Rabbi Jacobs defines poverty and the ways in which humanity act towards economic justice in the United States. Her powerful book shows how social justice is found within the torah, and how it already is applicable to our daily lives and social justice struggles. Rabbi Jacobs illustrates that each individual is a manifestation of G-d, therefore showing that by treating the needy among us repulsively, we are in turn treating G-d poorly. The idea is that G-d made each individual purposefully; we must not view the stranger as different from ourselves, neither should we view the needy as differently. While the poor may rely on other’s money and food to survive, we may each be outcast of some group based on our own ‘abnormalities’ based on race, religion, gender, class, and sexual identity. Parashat Mishpatim acts as a guide of how to treat others, for we were all once the needy, the enemy, and the stranger. There is no group of people who was not as some point the target of persecution.
Maybe the next time you see the needy among you don’t think of how you’re different but rather think of how you yourself could easily be among the needy, and in turn think of how to help rather than further isolate the stranger. Picture yourself in a land foreign to the one you know. We may not yet know the new territories we will encounter in our lives but we can remember to always respect and treat each other fairly whether it be the needy, enemy, stranger of friend among us.