For the past several weeks, there have been two images of Jews that have provided our family with valuable lessons in what it means to be Jewish, American and Canadian. The first image is a 31 year old Jewish man from Santa Monica, California, author of a Presidential Executive Order otherwise termed "The Muslim Travel Ban" that was blocked by the 9th Circuit Court. This Jewish White House advisor recently appeared on all those Sunday morning news shows telling us that immigrants are murderers and the promised a return to nativist glory days just so long as we never question the president and accept that the President determines truth. This image of stands in stark contrast to a Chicago Rabbi and his son marching at an airport demonstration against the Muslim travel ban. There is a picture that has gone viral of the Rabbi’s son (whose grandparents are part of the shul community) sitting atop his father's shoulders reaching out to a little Muslim girl sitting atop her father’s shoulders. The Rabbi and the son each hold signs that said: “We’ve Seen This Before. Never Again. Jews Against The Ban”, and “Hate Has No Home Here”. In our home, as we watched the demonstrations at numerous airports, as we listened to words and watched the deeds of these two Jewish men, I asked our children which of these two Jewish men embody Torah, embody Jewish values either through deeds or words. Our children listened to the words, they saw the images, they read the signs, and they thought about Moses, the Exodus, and being slaves in Egypt. They thought about much more recent history: the Holocaust, the immigration quotas that prevented Jews from entering the United States immediately before the war, the internment of Japanese Americans during the War, and awareness that we are “immigrants” to Canada.
This week we read from Parsha Mishpatim. Moshe is still at Mt. Sinai. However the revelation that occurred with the giving of the Aseret Dibrot (Ten Commandments) is long gone. Instead, God has now started giving Moshe numerous laws that affect the day to day issues raised by human interaction. There is no shofar blowing, there is no anticipation of meeting God at the mountain. Rather there is only God telling Moshe how to decide various legal matters including the damages to be paid if my ox gores your ox; two men are fighting near a pregnant woman and she gets hurt, and how to treat to a Jewish servant, observing festivals, the issues of liability for those who are asked to safeguard another’s property as well as manslaughter, to name just a few of the fifty three commandments (according to the Sefer HaChinuch). Moshe tells these laws to B’nai Yisroel and they respond with the words Naaseh v’Nishmah – we will do and learn. The Parsha concludes with glowing fire upon the Mountain that Moshe ascends once again.
Following the awe inspiring revelation at Sinai in Parsha Yitro, it might seem like a spiritual let down as we read of one law after another and the mundane rules that are established to govern human interaction. However buried beneath these rules and regulations God reminds Moshe of the foundations upon which these executive orders are based. V’Ger Lo Toneh V’Lo TilChatzenu Ki Geirim Heyitem B’Eretz Mitzrayim – You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Talmudic Sages in Baba Metzia 59b reminds us that the Torah cautions us regarding our treatment of the stranger no less than thirty six times. No other “executive order”, no other commandment, loving God, Shabbat, circumcision, forbidden foods, uttering a falsehood occurs as frequently loving the stranger or refrain from oppressing the stranger. The Talmudic sages understand this commandment in terms of the “stranger” (the idol worshipper turned proselyte). When the “stranger” ceases worshipping idols and begins the process of Torah study; no one oppress, mock or demean his origins. Later Medieval Commentators explain that the “stranger” is not only an idol worshipper turned proselyte, in other words, the spiritually defenseless. The “stranger” is the economically defenseless as well. RaShBam (11th Century French commentator and Rashi’s nephew) clarifies “Do not oppress him” to do your work since he has no champion. RaMBaM, the great Spanish commentator, adds a caveat to RaShBam. God defends the defenseless. God protects the widows and the orphans. In the previous Parsha, Yitro, God reminded Moshe to tell B’nai Yisroel that they were to be a Nation of Priests, that is to say, B’nai Yisroel is supposed embody Godliness here on earth. Caring for the stranger embodies Godliness. Failure to care for the stranger embodies the Egyptians.
Underlying the mundane concern of human relations lies the most profound and awe-inspiring idea. A group of former slaves can either embody the holiness of God or it can embody the corruption and the evil of their former task masters. A Chicago Rabbi and his son, demonstrating at O’Hare Airport, embody the fulfillment of the commandment. A Jewish White House Advisor who grew up in a non-observant Southern California home, forgot that his ancestors were once slaves in Egypt. He apparently forgot that his maternal grandparents were Eastern European immigrants that came before the War and settled in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. One understands his roots and his peoples’ roots and one doesn’t care or appreciate his roots or his people’s roots. Thankfully, our children can see this commandment and this Torah lesson play out in real time and learn the lesson of the Chicago Rabbi and the White House aid.