To use the title of Simon Shama’s wonderful book on 17th-century Amsterdam, this parashah contains an “embarrassment of riches” for a d’var torah. I will focus on a very familiar verse that I consider to be one of the most important verses in the Torah:
וגר לא תונה ולא תלחצנו כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 22:20). It is extremely unusual for the Torah to provide an explanation for a commandment, and that is what we have here. The reason why we must not oppress a stranger is an appeal to the past, to history: we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
A logical explanation? Not entirely. Cynthia Ozick, an American Jewish novelist, once pointed out that in ancient Greece, when they were looking for task-masters to place in charge of a group of slaves, they would take someone who had been a slave himself, because he would remember the kind of sanction that was most painful to him and therefore be able to inflict it most effectively on the slaves he was now responsible for. The experience of suffering in the past does not automatically, necessarily produce an unwillingness to make others suffer. So what is the connection between having been strangers or aliens in the past—or more accurately, the historic memory of our ancestors having been aliens in the past—and a benign policy toward the stranger, the alien in the present?
The connecting link is suggested a few verses further in our parashah, where almost the same verse is repeated with the addition of 5 words: “You shall not oppress a stranger, ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר, for you know the feelings (literally ‘the soul’) of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 23:9). According to this verse, the historic memory of having been outsiders, aliens, enables you to understand what it is like to be an alien, and that requires that when you see aliens today, you must imagine that you are in their place, and treat them accordingly, the way you would want to be treated yourself.
This act of imagination is what we call empathy. It is a buzz word in contemporary discourse. But we should appreciate that it is not at all self-evident. Indeed, this verse, and the ideas and feelings that it evokes, may well represent a monumental innovation in human thinking. There seems to be no evidence of this kind of attitude previously in the ancient world – not in the literature of the Babylonians or the Egyptians or the Greeks. For the ancient Greeks, the world was divided into categories: you were Greek or you were barbarian, you were free or you were slave. No act of the imagination led to identification with the Other across these boundary lines. In our own experience, seeing a person who is horribly disfigured, or living in squalor, is as likely to trigger feelings of disgust in the observer as feelings of compassion.
Gladiatorial combat, jousting tournaments, public executions, bull-fights, boxing matches, lynchings in the American South, round-ups of Jews in East European communities for ghettoization or deportation—all of these events, intended to result in pain, suffering and death, seem to have been a source of entertainment and pleasure for large numbers of the populations of various countries and ages. The Polish Christians asked to shelter Jews during the Nazi occupation had no naturally ingrained empathy for those Jews. They often had to overcome antisemitic stereotypes through a leap of empathetic imagination in order to decide to provide secret shelter at considerable risk to themselves and their families. Under those circumstances, the majority of Christians understandably declined to provide such shelter, but a substantial number agreed, and many survivors owe their lives to that decision.
That empathy toward the Other cannot be taken for granted is all too clear from the media news almost every day: The devastating attacks against minority Christian communities in Iraq and in Egypt; the forced expulsion of Roma populations from France; the blatantly prejudiced anti-Islamic discourse that has become increasingly wide-spread in the United States and here in the UK; the antagonism toward immigrants, resident aliens and refugees in these two countries even on the part of those who themselves come from immigrant families; the Israeli Orthodox rabbinic prohibitions against property owners renting space to Israeli Arabs – even an 87 year old Holocaust survivor in Nazareth renting a room to an Israeli Arab student.
It was the innovation of the Torah that all human beings share a common essence, expressed in that enigmatic phrase “tselem Elohim”, and that we can imagine, understand, have compassion for the feelings of others apparently quite different from us. And so this commandment rooted in empathy is repeated frequently in the Torah, and it appears also in the rabbinic literature, as in the statement:
אל תדין את חברך עד שתגיע למקומו
Do not judge your associate until you stand in his place (Avot 2:5).
“You must not oppress the stranger, ki atem yedatem et nefesh ha-ger, for you know the soul of the stranger.” You are capable of imagining what it is like to be a stranger and acting accordingly. That is one of the great gifts of our Torah and our people to world consciousness. What a tragedy that the insight expressed in this mitzvah seems to be falling increasingly into abeyance in our time.
Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein