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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Mishpatim (5762)

This parasha enumerates many laws Between Man and Man. The common denominator among them being that the strong is accountable for his treatment of the weak. The person with upper hand is enjoined to be mindful of those weaker than he and treat them with respect he would his equals. This is point is made at the very beginning of the sedra when the laws of treating one's servant are discussed. The emphasis is on the servant leaving his master and his servitude ("going out"- this term appears seven times in this section - an indication of its centrality.).

Let us examine verses and their Rashi-comments regarding the laws for treating the stranger.

Exodus 22:20

You shall not abuse or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.


For you were strangers: RASHI: If you abuse him, he, too, can abuse you by saying to you 'You too descend from strangers.' With the same fault that you have, don't reproach your fellow man."


This is a strange comment, when you think about it. Rashi is saying that a reason for not abusing the stranger is that he may get even with you and abuse you in response! This is quite a self-centered motivation for not being unjustly abusive. The Torah mentions 36 different times that would should be decent to those less fortunate, because we too suffered at the hands of the Egyptians. Is this the meaning for this oft-repeated phrase - that we should think twice because he can strike back at us and hurt us too?

To get a better understanding, let us look at another verse in our sedra which gives a very similar command.

Exodus 23:9

Do not oppress a stranger You know the soul of the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

On this verse Rashi says:

The soul of the stranger: RASHI: How hard it is for him when he is oppressed.

WHAT IS RASHI SAYING ? Here Rashi emphasizes the emotional empathy one should feel for the stranger because the Jew has "been there, done that" and should be able to appreciate his suffering. So, he should not make it any worse by abusing him.


These two Rashi-comments suggest two very different reasons for being decent to the stranger. One, a self-centered, "take care of yourself" attitude the other an empathetic identification with the stranger's plight, which will prompt us to treat him fairly. Why the difference?


The Torah actually makes the difference. In one place mentioning "You know the soul of the stranger" in other place not mentioning it.

But why this difference?

An Answer: One might want to believe that if a person experienced cruelty himself then he would be quite sensitive to this and be careful not be abusive to others. Unfortunately people are not always that way. We know that abused children may become abusing parents. Although these parents themselves , experienced the terror of such abuse they could nevertheless perpetrate it on their own children. So having been slaves in Egypt may not be enough of a motivation for some people. These people who are not moved by the other's suffering, are appealed to by striking a self-centered theme. Don't do this to the stranger for you may get pain back in spades.

Yet there are more loving, more caring more sensitive people in the world. For these the Torah reminds them that they "know the soul of the stranger" and thus should be careful not to hurt their feelings.

We see how the Torah appeals to all kinds of people, making sure that these different personalities are spoken to according to their viewpoint.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

"What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi."

Dr. Bonchek will be in the States IY"H this coming February on a lecture tour. Congregations or organizations interested in having him lecture for them are invited to contact him at msbonch@mscc.huji.ac.il.

The Institute is in the process of preparing the Devorim volume of "What's Bothering Rashi?" This volume will feature Rashi and the Ba'alie Tosephos. Readers interested in sponsoring a sedra in this volume are encouraged to contact us for further details at msbonch@mscc.huji.ac.il

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