In many ways, this week’s Torah reading is a transitional portion. Up until this point Shmot has been an exciting narrative about the Exodus, the Crossing of the Sea and the Revelation at Sinai, the stuff of action movies. Now, we begin to settle into material which can be politely described as less exhilarating. Our reading is more like a law book than an adventure story. Why is this material in the same text as the thrilling accounts we’ve just completed?
Even though there are many mitzvot in our parsha the ones which, I believe best help to explain the presence of this material is: You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan (Shmot 22:21 & 22).
I say this because Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that the very reason that we had to endure the slavery of Egypt was to prepare us to be masters in our own land. We couldn’t be the benevolent rulers of the land of Israel without this difficult experience. It’s the reason that the Torah demands that we remember the Egypt experience fifty times. So many of our mitzvot are ZECHER L’YETZIAT MITZRAYIM, a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, that it clearly is supposed to affect all of our behavior.
The mitzva itself contains a little controversy. The critical term is GER. This word can denote either a ‘stranger’ or a ‘convert’. There are, indeed, places where the majority of authorities assume we mean a ‘convert’ (as when we’re told to ‘love the GER’), but here Rashi explains: it signifies a person who has not been born in that land, but has come from another country to sojourn there.
And what do we mean by TONU (translated ‘wrong’ or ‘vex’) and TILCHTZENU (‘pressure’ or ‘oppress’)? What actions have been banned? Again, Rashi to the rescue. Our greatest of commentaries explains that the first term means with words, and the second implies robbery. We are, therefore, prohibited from either emotional or financial abuse.
With those more technical issues out of the way, let’s talk about the ideas behind these mitzvot. Rav Jonathan Sacks OB”M, I think, really hit the nail on the head, when he clearly explained: The very inclinations that bring out the best in us – our genetic inclination to make sacrifices for the sake of kith and kin – can also bring out the worst in us when we fear the stranger.
In other words, we’re hard wired to benefit our genes, and to stymie the needs of competing DNA. How very biological of the great rabbi and philosopher. This fundamental reality goes a long way to help us understand something else Rav Sacks said:
Hatred of the foreigner is the oldest of passions, going back to tribalism and the prehistory of civilization. The Greeks called strangers “barbarians” because of their speech that sounded like the bleating of sheep…Dislike of the unlike is as old as mankind.
So, God wanted us to form a perfect society where our common historical experience (slavery in Egypt) would be so indelibly etched into our national memory and psyche that we could successfully combat this biological urge. Mind over genetic matter. Cool!
However, Rav Yoel Bin Nun goes on to explain another important factor for placing all of these MISHPATIM (laws governing a moral society) at this exact place in the book of Shmot. He points out that right after this week’s reading, we enter the rather mysterious realm of the portable Temple or Mishkan. Why is it so important to have all these societal rules juxtaposed with these esoteric instructions? Well, he quoted King David:
Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? (Tehillim 24:4). Who has the right to enter the Beit Hamikdash? King David continues: He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.
In other words, the only people who should go up to the Temple Mount are those who observe all the laws here in our Torah reading. The Temple service is a very wonderful rendezvous with God, God only wants those who are moral and ethical to answer the call. So, all of this less exciting material prepares us for building the society which can have a Temple in its midst.
I think hearing these ideas from Rav Bin Nun is very appropriate, because he was one of those paratroopers who liberated the Temple Mount in 1967. He concludes: God has no desire for sacrifices; He has no need for offerings, and the sacrifices brought by people who are morally unworthy are certainly a sacrilege, causing the SHECHINA to depart from Israel.
This idea that the BEIT HAMIKDASH represents moral imperatives as much as spiritual truths is also the point of the prophet Yeshayahu in the first chapter of his book: Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow (verse 17). Yeshayahu is warning society of the danger to the country and the Temple. And the greatest threats aren’t from idolatry or even outside enemies, but from our own moral decay.
So, as we here in the proto-redeemed state endeavor to move forward towards the final redemption, we must always remember that the greatest impediment to achieving our ultimate goal is ourselves. We must build a moral and just society, then God will build the BEIT HAMIKDASH, please, speedily in our days.