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Parshas Mishpatim
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

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Empathy and Kindness

Twice in Parshas Mishpatim, we are reminded to treat ‘gerim’ kindly. (According to the interpretations of our commentaries, the ‘gerim’ noted in this context refers to 1) gentiles who converted to Yiddishkeit, as well as 2) newcomers to a community who tend to feel stress due to their relocation).

A careful reading of the two pesukim reveals a slight difference between the two versions of the admonition to be kind to gerim. The second pasuk seems to be more explicit than the first. In the first instance, (Shmos 22:20) we are commanded that we “Shall not taunt or oppress a ger since we were gerim [ourselves] in the land of Egypt.” The second pasuk (23:9) gives a clear line of reasoning for the mitzvah. “Do not oppress the stranger, and you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. The second rendition offers a logical linkage. We, who know the feeling of being gerim, ought to be especially sensitive to other gerim. The first pasuk, however, does not connect the dots that clearly, and we turn to our commentaries for their insight regarding the exact linkage.

Rashi offers a pragmatic reason for refraining from taunting gerim. He suggests that we self-evaluate before pointing out the shortcomings of others – especially if we are found lacking in those areas. Rashi notes that “mum she’becha al toamar l’chaveircha” – do not reproach others with a fault that you have yourself. Thus, since we were ourselves strangers in Egypt, we should reflect before we mistreat newcomers to our communities.

The Ohr Hachaim views this admonition in more spiritual terms. He explains that we might be inclined to view converts with disfavor due to their ancestry. The Torah reminds us, therefore, that our own ancestors were gerim and were in the lowest spiritual level possible while in the land of Mitzrayim.

Paying Your Dues

I would like to suggest a novel approach to understanding the first of the two pesukim, one that contains a powerful message for our lives as we transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Allow me to share an analogy of sorts with you.

Think back to your years of riding the school bus in elementary school. I hope this was not the case, but in all likelihood, the eighth-graders became self-appointed lords during the daily bus rides. They reserved the best seats for themselves, told the younger kids to quiet down while making lots of noise themselves, and were generally looked upon as the kings of the hill. When you were younger, you probably resented their role. You may have felt all along that this system was unfair and vowed that you would not act like that when you will become the eldest.

However, when you reached eighth-grade, in all likelihood, your perspective changed. Perhaps you felt that you paid your dues in your younger years and now it was your time to be the leader of the pack. Maybe you didn’t think about it all that much and just acquired that learned behavior from sitting in the bus during your younger years. After all, you just assumed that this is how eighth-graders ought to behave.

It sounds counterintuitive, but the reality is that in many instances, when people are treated shabbily when they are in a position of weakness, they often turn around and mistreat others once they assume positions of power. I gave a mild example of kids on a bus, but this phenomenon exits, albeit in much more complicated venues, for other, more serious forms of abuses of power.

One or the Other

Bottom line – being at the bottom of the totem pole for periods in our lives can bring about one of two sharply diverse results once we move our way upward and acquire power. One can either become incredibly sensitive to those who are weaker as he or she remembers the bitter sting of mistreatment. Or, conversely, one can torment weak people just as he or she was tormented previously.

With that in mind, we can perhaps gain insight into a possible message of these two pesukim informing us of the need to treat gerim kindly. The second pasuk appeals to our sense of fairness. You know the feelings of a stranger. And, therefore, you should be especially sensitive to the feelings of gerim. However, before we get to that level of fairness, the Torah warns us that we are quite vulnerable to the possibility of mistreating gerim since we were slaves in Egypt ourselves. Thus the first Pasuk (Shmos 22:20) on this subject would read that we “Shall not taunt or oppress a ger [and we will need to be vigilant to prevent this from happening] since we were gerim [ourselves] in the land of Egypt [and having spent time at the bottom of the totem pole in Mitzrayim, we may be inclined to mistreat others who are gerim].”

This would explain why the Torah so often reminds us of the importance of treating with kindness those who may be prone to mistreatment. For our treatment of ‘gerim’ of any sort – someone who relocated and recently joined our school, one who is perpetually excluded from sports games or conversations, one whose social skills are underdeveloped, one who is a poor student and is slipping through the cracks of the school we are attending – is a true measure of who we are and how we absorb the timeless lessons of our Holy Torah.

Remember your humble beginnings, says Hashem. You were once lowly slaves in Egypt. Remember the sting of rejection and the pain of loneliness. But above all, never turn around and abuse others as a result of your mistreatment. Become softer and more compassionate people to gerim – of all types.

Best wishes for a Gutten Shabbos

© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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