Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, February 2, 2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Years ago at a Rabbinical Assembly Convention in Los Angeles when the issue of welcoming gay Jews into JTS rabbinical school and solemnizing gay marriage was causing great consternation in the movement, the Convention happened to invite Dennis Praeger to be one of the guest speakers. Praeger used his talk to plead with members not to give in to the growing swell of support for normalizing homosexuality, insisting that the verse in Leviticus had to mean something. During the response period, Harold Kushner got up and stated, “It is not that we choose verses we like, and dismiss others. But we take the entire Torah seriously. There are verses which teach us that God is compassionate, that we should love our neighbors, that we should love the stranger, the outsider, and not to oppress the powerless. These verses contradict that verse. If we observe the verse which tells us that homosexuality is not permitted, we will be violating these other mitzvot. The Torah is not either/or, we have to use our judgment and understanding to balance all of its teachings.”
I mention this exchange because I am very glad that at last week’s Havdalah program in which we played Stump the Rabbi, no one asked me the following question: This week’s Parasha opens with regulations about slavery. The Jews just left a world in which they were brutally enslaved and know the evils of slavery yet we are permitted to enslave. The common response to this is, I quote Rabbi Dvora Weisberg: “This law (Exodus 21:1-8) is one of many illustrating the compromises required when transforming a people's mentality and lifestyle. The Torah could have set guidelines for a utopian society, but the Israelites could never have realized them. The Torah recognizes human limitations and sets goals accordingly. Becoming a holy people is a gradual process. Unreasonable demands lead to great disappointments.” Right, so the Israelites live in a world where slavery is the norm, the Torah knows slavery is wrong but to wean them off slavery, it must do so gradually. This is a common political argument between moderates and liberals.
But here is the part I don’t understand – that is not the Torah’s attitude toward the stranger, the widow and the orphan, basically another powerless segment in society. Here the Torah does not wean Israel off gradually from ill treatment.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.”
I cannot explain why the Torah does not see the slave in the same terms as the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. It can’t be because they are members of the tribe because the stranger is not. The term ger today is understood as a convert, and some medieval commentators do assume that, but in Biblical terms a ger is a non Israelite who lives among the Israelites.
But like Rabbi Kushner what we can say is that there is a clear contradiction between these opening verses which give permission to own slaves, even in a qualified system, and the verses about the powerless in society found near the end of the portion.
Not only that but listen to our commentators explained the verses to see how far they were willing to go to demand that the average Jew treat the powerless, the vulnerable with dignity and decency.
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Three of the great commentators understood this verse different ways. Rashi explained, that the phrase “You shall not wrong” Lo Toneh means by words. You shall not denigrate the stranger. Or oppress him. By robbing him of money. Taking advantage of him financially. Why? Because “you were strangers.” Rashi understands the Torah to be saying you should oppress the stranger because “If you taunt him, he can taunt you back and say, “You, too, come from strangers.” Do not chastise your fellow for the very flaw you have yourself.” Rashi’s focus is on the hypocrisy. It is similar to a Stephen Miller, the President’s advisor who has been behind severe limitations in legal immigration numbers. Miller’s family two generations ago were immigrants, he had family who died in the Holocaust because of immigration limitations in the 20s and 30s but now he wants to stop others fleeing oppression from entering the country.
Abraham Ibn Ezra saw the underpinnings of the verse differently. You shall not wrong a stranger. As a resident alien, he has no family roots in the land, so it would be easy for citizens to wrong him, whether with regards to money or to housing, and even to oppress him by means of false testimony… But you must not wrong a stranger merely because you have more power than he. Remember that you were once strangers like him. Ibn Ezra understands the unique danger to the stranger – he has no support, does not understand the local customs and rules, and is ripe for being exploited. Time and agin we Jews were in this situation – we know what it is like and we must be sensitive to the pressures of the outsider, to the landless, to the powerless. We will not treat those the way we did not want to be treated.
But Nachmanides disagrees with both Rashi and Ibn Ezra. Just because we were strangers once is not a reason for refraining from wronging them. Rather the reason the verse references “you were strangers in the land of Egypt” is to remind us that when we were suffering, God came to our aid. God said “I saw how the Egyptians oppressed you and took revenge on them. For I see ‘the tears of the oppressed, with none to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors’ [Eccles. 4:1], and I ‘save the poor from one stronger than he’ [Ps. 35:10]. I hear the cry of the widow and orphan as well—for all three of these cannot rely on themselves, but must rely upon Me.” God sides with the oppressed and the powerless, and Ramban is telling us be careful that you don’t turn into the Egyptians or the other oppressor classes, because God will turn against you. This is what Amos and the prophets told Israel many times and it is a message that we Jews today should heed given our greater wealth and power.
The next verses speak to concerns of widows and orphans. As Ibn Ezra says, “The verse about the powerless stranger is followed by one about widows and orphans—powerless Israelites.” First the Torah is concerned about the persecutions against outsiders to the community, then it focuses on those within the community.
But Ibn Ezra and others like the commentator known as Hizkuni, Rabbi Hezkiyah ben Manoach, notice something interesting about the Hebrew. All the verses in Mishpatim are addressed in the singular, to every Jew. However unlike the other verbs in this section, the verb Lo T’anun translated “ill-treat” is in the plural. That is “You, plural, shall not ill treat the widow and orphan. The Hizkuni explains this is in plural because all of society takes advantage of these vulnerable classes, Ibn Ezra sees it as a more encompassing concern, not only those who actively persecute but even those who see the ill-treatment and are silent will be punished. And the punishment will be tit for tat – you mistreated widows and orphans, you will die and your wife and children will become widows and orphans.
Nahmanides emphasizes that this is not about financial vulnerability only. The verse states You shall not ill treat Any widow. Nachmanides points out Any widow means Even a rich, propertied one. For even she cries easily and feels low.”
The Torah wants to train us to be sensitive to the needs of the vulnerable. Obviously we should not persecute, exploit, take advantage of any one, but especially those who are without support networks, who are defenseless. In addition though the Torah wants us Put ourselves in the place of these individuals. How must it feel to be alone, to be vulnerable, to be without support, to be scared and confused? We have known those fears in our past and we are expected to call on those emotions and anxieties again to understand and empathize with those most needy in society.
Why the Torah insists that systemic exploitation of the stranger, the widow and the orphan must end now, but systemic slavery be permitted to end gradually, I don’t know. All we can say is that slavery no longer exists in our society, so we have no excuses about observing these moral demands on us regarding the helpless, the lost, the lonely, and the weak.