It is in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, that we first encounter one of the core concepts of our tradition: radical empathy. It is expressed in the phrase, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egpyt (Exodus 23:9).
Perhaps because we have heard this phrase so many times, we’ve lost our appreciation for how extradordinary a mandate this happens to be. After all, based on the way I hear people talk about being wronged, whether they are children on the playground or adults in social conflict, one could easily imagine other formulations as we respond to the experience of being wronged. I know people whom I can easily hear saying, “I’m indifferent to the stranger, because when we were strangers, no one lifted a finger to help us.” But the Torah takes the opposite approach, demanding that we act with kindness precisely because we know what it’s like to have been deprived of it.
At the core of relationships, whether they be between people or Peoples, is empathy. In some cases, it takes years and tireless effort to forge that empathy. Yet all it takes is one unempathetic act or word to threaten that relationship. A recent example of this is the tension that has developed between Poland and Israel over the recent law passed by Poland’s legislature and approved by President Duda that criminalizes accusing “The Polish Nation” of complicity in the Shoah.
What would devotion to the Torah’s principle about treatment of strangers look like in this dynamic, or in other current moral debates? On Shabbat morning, we’ll dig a little deeper.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,