You shall not mistreat a stranger – Shabbat Parshat Mishpatim

We will read this week the following verse: “And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Shemot. 22.20).

At first glance, it seems extremely hard to understand. Was Egypt a good example for how to treat strangers? So why mention the context of Egypt here?

Rashi moves away from the literal formulation and says: “If you taunt him, he can also taunt you and say to you, ‘You too emanate from strangers’. Do not reproach your neighbour with a fault that is also yours” So the verse is not referring to the Egyptian experience as an example of how to behave, but rather a warning to us.

Exploring the issue further, we get to an even bigger question. We read in Devarim (23.8) the following verse

“You shall not despise an Edomite, for he is your brother. You shall not despise an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner (temporary resident) in his land.”

לֹֽא־תְתַעֵ֣ב אֲדֹמִ֔י כִּ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ ה֑וּא לֹא־תְתַעֵ֣ב מִצְרִ֔י כִּי־גֵ֖ר הָיִ֥יתָ בְאַרְצֽוֹ׃

Is it really possible to ignore the terrible torture and death that the Egyptians have inflicted on us?

The Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel, Cologne 1250 or 1259 – Toledo 1327, an eminent Talmudist,  often referred to as Rabbenu Asher, or by the Hebrew acronym for this title, the Rosh – רא”ש‎, literally “Head” -, himself forced to emigrate) explains on the latter verse that indeed, we shall not despise the Egyptians, as although we are mainly aware of the horrific torture they have inflicted on us during the late period of our stay. However “they did treat us well at an earlier stage (of our stay in Egypt)”. This is an astonishing and deep thought.

The Egyptians responsible for the torture, were, as we know, severely punished. But in the bigger picture – we must be able to take a wider look and recognise the good sides of that same nation.

As individuals, the lesson for us is immense. So often do we despise people because we look (only) at their recent behaviour to us. The honest way is however to always keep perspective of the relationship over years, and not to judge a person only upon a single action -even if it was a very painful one.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Chaim Michael Biberfeld