“You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.” (Exodus 23:6)
Parashat Mishpatim begins a section of the Torah called sefer habrit, the Book of the Covenant. It expands upon aseret hadibrot (the Ten Utterances) delivered last week in Parashat Yitro and presents the basic laws comprising a just society. A just society is not merely a matter of law, though. Moshe Greenberg, notes Mishpatim include laws, ritual instructions, and moral exhortation, all of which contribute to a just society. Because the laws in Mishpatim immediately follow the laws for building the altar, Yalkut Shimoni states that in the future when there is no altar, a just society will be equal to bringing sacrifices to God.
One hallmark of a just society is how it treats strangers (a foreign-born resident). And the classic Biblical rationale for treating strangers properly is, “…you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 22:20). Usually, we understand this reference through the lens of empathy; the memory of being strangers in Egypt keeps us from imposing that miserable experience on anyone else. Rashi though, cautions we should not treat the stranger differently from ourselves because we will find ourselves in situations where our “strangeness/foreignness” could be used by others as an excuse to discriminate. In other words, a just society doesn’t have a society with insiders and outsiders. This is so important, the Torah reminds us 36 times to treat the stranger properly.
Is a society in which everyone is an insider achievable? That’s the central question of JCC Association’s Caring Communities Task Force, which will issue its report at the upcoming Biennial in May. Stay tuned.
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,