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Parashat Mishpatim: Welcoming the Stranger

Parashat Mishpatim: Welcoming the Stranger

As we read Parashat Mishpatim (Rules) from the book of Exodus this week, we are presented with many rules and moral imperatives that we must live by, culminating the process of creating the covenant between God and the Jewish people. The rules presented in Parashat Mishpatim are often referred to as the “Book of the Covenant” and can be split into two categories. The first group of laws (21:2-22:16) are referred to as case laws that describe specific scenarios, and the second group (22:17-2:19) are considered unconditional imperatives that one must live by every day.

One of the many moral imperatives mentioned in the second half of this parsha is, “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). This commandment is repeated 36 times throughout our Torah, more than any other commandant. In fact, it is repeated in this parsha just a few lines later as, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).  After living in slavery in Egypt, God is telling the Jewish people that we were not freed to oppress others as we were oppressed. Instead, the Jewish people were freed to ensure no other communities suffer as we did in Egypt.

Why is this commandment repeat 36 times throughout the Torah? It is so easy to become encompassed in our own lives and surroundings and forget those outside of our close-knit community. The constant reminder to love your neighbor and protect the stranger helps us to look outside of our community and connect to those who are oppressed purely because they are different.

We are currently facing the largest refugee crisis with 60 million people forced to feel their homes throughout the world. According the UN Refugee Agency, at the end of 2014 there were 19.5 million refugees worldwide, an increase of nearly three million from the previous year, with an expected increase for 2015. In response to the crisis, the United States has taken small measures to increase our refugee acceptance. At the end of last year, Secretary Kerry announced an increase in the number of refugees the United States will accept from 70,000 in 2015 to 85,000 in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017. Syria is currently the largest source of refugees worldwide, yet the U.S. has only accepted nearly 2,000 refugees since the conflict began in 2011. Recently, there has been an increase in anti-refugee sentiment throughout the United States, especially in response to refugees from Syria.

This month, Congress has been discussing the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015 (H.R.408), an anti-refugee bill that passed that House and was introduced in the Senate earlier this month. Luckily the bill did not pass the Senate, but legislation such as this is the opposite response we should have to this worldwide crisis. Additionally, although this bill did not pass, there is much more that needs to be done to fight anti-refugee sentiment in the United States. Many states have introduced their own legislation closing their doors to refugees of certain backgrounds.

We must stand together as a Reform Jewish community to show our nation and lawmakers that we will welcome refugees of all religious backgrounds. We must work to ensure the refugees and strangers among us are treated fairly on a national level and we must also look to our neighbors around us and ensure we are doing all that we can to create safe and welcoming environments. There are many ways to work with your local refugee community through volunteering at local resettlement agencies or taking action to ensure your law makers continue to welcome refugees. As we are reminded this week, and 36 times throughout the Torah, we must not oppress the stranger, but rather love the stranger as ourselves. 

Photo Courtesy of Flickr/World Bank 

Rachel Landman is the assistant director of 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy in Byfield, MA, where she ran the inaugural summer Israel program, which focused on exploring Israel through the lens of science and technology. She holds a degree in biology from Hamilton College and served as an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. She is an alumna of URJ Crane Lake Camp and grew up at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue in Brooklyn, NY. 

Rachel Landman

Published: 2/02/2016