Parshat Mishpatim: “Wronging the Stranger”
Reut and Ori Houminer are Beren-Amiel alumni who served as spiritual leaders and teachers in the Jewish community and school of Madrid, Spain
“And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Shemot 22:20)
In our portion, the Torah warns us against “wronging the stranger”, and even goes so far as to give us the unique reason for this: “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.
We have particularly chosen to focus on this prohibition not only because of its great importance, but also because of the difficulties that often arise from it, and to which we were unfortunately witness both during our emissary work abroad as well as upon our return to Israel. Guiding new converts is sacred work, and, thank God, the extensive studies at Beren-Amiel gave us the tools necessary for opening up our home and our hearts to those families and individuals who seek God, oftentimes leaving behind them a life of great comfort – and all for the purpose of finding new meaning in their lives. We were fortunate enough to offer close guidance and counseling to these people up until the point of Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim, when they finally took upon themselves the Kingship of Heaven and committed to the observance of the 613 mitzvot.
The portion of Mishpatim comprises a myriad of mitzvot which are mentioned one after the other in a seemingly technical list of laws intended for the People who had just left Egypt. This long string of mitzvot appears to be exceptional following the long sequence of portions from Bereshit to Beshalach, which relate chronological events. The few mitzvot that are mentioned in the earlier story-sequence are always interwoven into the story and never appear as standalones.
The peculiarity of Mishpatim is all the greater in light of its chronology – immediately following the portion of Yitro, which also constitutes a “list of laws”. However, while Yitro‘s “mitzvah list” is part of the sublime and awe-inspiring description of the giving of the Torah and the Tablets of the Law at Sinai, Parshat Mishpatim seems to be a little lacking in the inspiration department.
The Abarbanel, in his commentary, illustrates the close connection existing between the Ten Commandments in the portion of Yitro and the mitzvot mentioned in our portion. In fact, the Abarbanel contends that the commandments described in Mishpatim are an elaboration of the Ten Commandments given at Sinai. Let us demonstrate this by expounding upon the prohibition of wronging the stranger, the ger:
“And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him – this is an elaboration on the commandment of “Lo Ta’ane be’re’acha ed shaker” – “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”. One might err to think that the commandment refers only to the prohibition to bear false testimony, but this is not the case, for this commandment includes also the prohibition to humiliate the stranger or shame him by relating to his past as an idol worshipper… And the above teaches us that the Ten Commandments, being Divine Laws, are founded upon the principles of wisdom and compassion.“
After expounding upon the mitzvot that stem from the Commandments of “Thou shalt not murder”, “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, the Abarbanel explains that the prohibition to wrong the stranger can be looked upon as a derivative of the more general prohibition of “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” In other words, the Commandment prohibiting false testimony does not only instruct us not to bear false witness, but also includes other prohibitions such as denouncing and disgracing the stranger, which is a form of wrongdoing. It follows then that the prohibition to remind the ger of his sinful past is embedded in the Ten Commandments! The Abarbanel concludes with the following notion: The explication of the miztvot in Mishpatim comes to illustrate that the Ten Commandments given by God are based on principles of wisdom and compassion.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch takes a similar approach in his explanation on the mitzvah of not wronging the ger:
“And a stranger shalt thou not wrong etc. – this verse is very much in keeping with the previous one. The previous verse relates to one who is born a Jew, of impeccable Jewish lineage, and tells us unequivocally that even such a one will be cast out of the Jewish People should he deviate, in any form or way, from the worship of God which is a central pillar of the Jewish faith. In contrast to this, the verse in question says the following: One who is born an idol worshipper and chooses to join the Jewish People by accepting the core principles of the Jewish faith and the worship of God – such a one is entitled to complete equality and deserves all the rights and privileges bestowed upon the Jewish People as is written in the Torah of Israel. The connection between these two verses teaches us a greater principle yet, one which is highlighted by the Torah on a number of occasions:
The dignity of any man or citizen, and the rights of all people, are not dependent on one’s ancestry, place of birth, wealth, nor on anything external to man’s inner essence. Rather, man is only judged by his own spiritual virtues and his ethical qualities. And the fact that the Torah gives us the reason for this prohibition [not wronging the stranger in our midst] – “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” – comes to caution us that this principle must be safeguarded no matter what […] And for this reason the Torah chooses an unequivocal phrasing – “for you were strangers etc.” – to teach the following: The calamity in Egypt was precisely this – the fact that you had lived there as “strangers”. And as such, it was believed by the locals that you were not entitled to land or a homeland. In fact, you did not even have the right to exist. You were subject to the whims of those who could treat you as they willed. As strangers in the land of Egypt you were deprived of all your rights, and this was the very root of the slavery and torture imposed upon you. Therefore, take heed – hishameru lachem – lest the human rights in your own country be founded on something other than compassion in its most pure form, a quality that dwells in the heart of every human being, no matter who he may be.“
The Torah highlights the fact that the ger, the stranger who has chosen of his own accord to leave idol worship behind and seek God, is entitled to live as an equal among the Jewish People. It is not for nought that God chose to give the reasoning for this particular commandment – “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…” – for it also serves as a guiding principle for the Jewish State. When you were in Egypt, you lived as strangers and were treated with disgrace. Hence, when you establish your own Jewish State, you must conduct yourself in a manner altogether different from that of the Egyptians. Your Jewish State must be able to see and acknowledge the person who has chosen to enter its gates and embrace Judaism.
The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh notes that one should not forget that the People of Israel was formed from souls who were “covered in a shell”, i.e., souls that succeeded in leaving Egypt although they were deeply rooted in exile. In light of this, when a stranger joins the Jewish People “he must be like one of you, without any distinction, and to this end you must neither wrong him nor oppress him.“
The Hassidic leader, Rabi Shlomo HaCohen Rabinovitch, author of Tiferet Shlomo, refers to the Gemara in the tractate of Pesachim which states that “God placed Israel in exile […] so that strangers would join them”, and then goes on to explain that the reason the Torah prohibits the wronging of a stranger stems from the notion that Israel’s role was to “elevate those holy souls that were dispersed in the land of Egypt and bring them back to their source.” When a ger joins our People, we must see the sparks within him that had initially drawn him to Judaism. According to the Tiferet Shlomo, it was to elevate these sparks that the Israelites had gone down to Egypt in the first place.
In conclusion, it seems that the true greatness of the fine details of the mitzvot, as well as the reasons given by the Torah for these (both in the portion of Mishpatim as well as in the portions to follow), becomes apparent only when one sees them as part and parcel of the story that appears before. God chose to give us a Torah filled with Divine mitzvot, and yet the latter are only introduced after we read about the story of the Patriarchs, their trials and tribulation, followed by the story of the People of Israel and how they were chosen by God, with great love, to be a nation unto Him. God is in the details, as goes the saying, but the details and particulars of the mitzvot were only given to us following the “greater story”. This is so because the laws and their particulars are not standalones; rather, they are inevitably connected to the “greater story”.
We saw in great clarity how the reason for the prohibition to wrong the ger is an attestation to God’s compassion. This commandment incorporates the obligation to be kind; to treat all persons as human beings; to acknowledge the Divine spark within the ger and to remember the turbulent journey the ger had undertaken, much like our own Patriarchs. We may have had the privilege of being born Jewish; the ger, however, had the privilege of choosing to be Jewish.
Throughout our lessons at Beren-Amiel in preparation for emissary work, and even later on during our shlichut, Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum and the other rabbis of the Institute emphasized time and time again that before one delves into the nitty-gritty of halacha (an important aspect of conversion, of course), one has to first acknowledge the following: who it is that is standing before me; what he has been through until now; what he is choosing to undertake and undergo at this moment. Only once we understand all of these points, can we lead the ger onto the pathway of halacha, to the ultimate purpose of successfully observing all the mitzvot, big as well as small. This can only be achieved if the holy Torah serves as our reference point, the same Torah which is founded upon the Divine values of wisdom and compassion, which run completely counter to the “abominations of Egypt”.
We hope and pray that we merit to have a clear vision of the person standing before us; to see him as an equal; to feel true empathy for him and place ourselves in his shoes; and to perform every action of ours with true fear and love of God.
 The Abarbanel on Shemot, portion of Mishpatim, 22: 15.
 Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch on Shemot, portion of MIshpatim, 22:20.
 Ohr HaChayim on Shemot, portion of Mishpatim, 22:20.
 Tiferet Shlomo on Bereshit, portion of Lech-Lecha.
The Jewish community of Madrid is diverse and warm, albeit quite small. The community was founded some one-hundred years ago, after a period of about four-hundred years during which time there were no Jews in Spain following the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. The community is comprised largely of Jews emanating from Spanish Morocco, South America etc. The Jews of Madrid live all over the city, yet congregate in a small number of synagogues and attend one Jewish school. The community is a Zionist one and is very connected to tradition. There are numerous communal activities, some of which evolve around the Jewish Calendar, of which many are carried out in collaboration with the Jewish school, the synagogues, the youth movement etc.