Arik Ascherman

Whom Musn’t We Oppress??

When it comes to Parashat Mishpatim, I am never very original.  I come back to the same themes and commentary year after year.  We were given the grand vision last week, but this week we come down to earth, and get down to nitty gritty.  As the saying goes “the devil is in the details.”  It is wonderful that we are commanded “Don’t murder,” but is it murder when we beat somebody and he doesn’t die immediately…..

We are taught the basics of how to treat others (how not to mistreat others).  However, who are the “others” we are forbidden to mistreat?

In Exodus 22:20-22 we are introduced to the triumvirate representing the weakest and most vulnerable in society:

“You shall not wrong a ger or oppress him/her, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt.  You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.  If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me.“

The Jewish tradition distinguishes between the ger tzedek, who has converted to Judaism, and the ger toshav, the non-Jew living among us and accepting basic ground rules.  Many commentators argue that the ger in Exodus 22 is a convert to Judaism, and don’t derive from this command an obligation to avoid mistreating non-Jews.    However, I wonder how that could be, given the fact that we are told that we were gerim in Egypt.  The classic commentator Ibn Ezra argues that when the ger is mentioned in the context of ritual commandments, the ger is the convert.  However, when we are commanded to behave ethically toward the ger, it is the non-Jew.  Ibn Ezra writes:

“When the ger agrees not to practice idolatry you will not wrong him/her in your land.  For, you have much more power than s/he does.  Remember that you were gerim in the land of Egypt.  Just as the Torah mentions the fact that the ger has no power, it also mentions the orphan and the widow, who are Israelites, but have no power.  Afterwards the Torah says, “And you shall not ill-treat” in the plural, it says “If you shall mistreat”(In the singular) For, anybody who sees somebody mistreating the orphan or the widow and does not aid them, s/he is also thought of as one who is mistreating.  (22)  And if you do mistreat.  And here is the punishment.  If one person mistreats and nobody comes to help out, the punishment is collective…”

 We are our brother’s and our sister’s keepers.  One cannot be a bystander.  And, we cannot ignore power imbalances, and power imbalances are often reinforced through the legal system.  In our portion we also read, “You shall not oppress a ger, for you know the soul of the ger because you were gerim in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)  Ibn Ezra’s writes,

This is also directed towards the judge, so that the judge will not think to (automatically) side with the Torah of Israel(Jew) when a Israelite has an argument with a ger. This is also directed to individual. It is written “Do not oppress” (In the singular) yet says: “And you shall judge (plural) justly between a person and a fellow Israelite his/her ger. (The ger living with him/her (Deuteronomy 1:16)

He will make this even clearer in Deuteronomy:

 Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the ger, the fatherless and the widow.(Deuteronomy 27:19)

For they have no power (oz.  In some versions: ozer – nobody to help them.)  And s/he is transparent.  The text specifies the ger, and also the orphan and the widow, because if the judge subverts the legal proceedings of others they will appeal his decision and make the matter known.  However, the ger, the orphan and the widow have no power.”

Maimonides and many others maintain that there can be no ger toshav until we are observing the jubilee year.  However, Professor Yaakov Bildstein argues that for Ibn Ezra, the ger is just a subset of the “rei’ah,” as in “You shall love your rei’ah as yourself.“ Mistranslated as “neighbor,” it is the one who is essentially like us. Because we are all created in God’s Image, there is an essential likeness shared by all humanity.  Jubilee or no jubilee, the Torah is commanding us not to mistreat any human being.

When we founded the State of Israel, we also had a grand vision.  We wrote in our Declaration of Independence that Israel would be based on “Freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel,” and that the country would guarantee “total social and political equality for all, regardless religion, race or gender.”  Again, the question is how we apply these lofty values.  Several decades before the First Zionist Congress, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch told us that in Exodus 22:20 the Torah tells us that one day we will have a state, and warns us that we must act differently than we ourselves were treated so many times in our history:

“The great, meta-principle is oft-repeated in the Torah that it is not race, not descent, not birth nor country of origin, nor property, nor anything external or due to chance, but simply and purely the inner spiritual and moral worth that is the nature of a human being, that gives him/her all the rights of a human being and of a citizen. This basic principle is further protected against infringement by the additional explanation For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” For this is not the same reasoning as the verse that appears afterwards, 23:9 For you know the soul of the ger… but here says definitively, “For you were gerim…” – Your entire misfortune in Egypt was this. that you were “gerim” there. As such, according to the views of other nations, you had no right to land, to homeland, or to a dignified existence. It was permissible to do to you whatever they wished. As gerim, your rights were denied in Egypt. This was the source of the slavery and wretchedness imposed upon you. Therefore beware – so runs the warning – from making human rights in your own state conditional on anything other than on the basic humanity which every human being as such bears within him/her by virtue of being human. Any suppression of human rights opens the gate to the indiscriminate use of power and abuse of human beings that is the root of the entire abomination of Egypt. “

What more can be said?  All human beings are our re’im, but we have a special obligation towards the weakest members of our society.  Responsibility is collective, and we cannot ignore imbalances of power.  It is human nature to mistreat others as we were mistreated.  It is all too easy to recreate the abomination of Egypt.  However, the Torah commands us that in our State we must be different.  We should not be closing our borders to asylum seekers, as borders were closed to us.  We should not be dispossessing and oppressing Palestinians and other non-Jews, as we were oppressed.  We must not neglect the Israeli Jewish single parent mom opening up the empty refrigerator. The devil is in the details, but also the potential for kedushah-holiness.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.