This week’s Torah Portion, Mishpatim, offers a series of detailed laws which were to guide the Israelites as they sought to build a covenanted community. Many of these laws are outdated and, thankfully, no longer relevant. These include the laws regarding the treatment of slaves and the social standing of women. There are other laws, however, that seem more relevant than ever. Chief among them is this:
And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Eִgypt. You shall not oppress any widow or orphan.
The Torah is clear. A community is responsible for welcoming the stranger, is prohibited from taking advantage of guests, visitors and “strangers” and is required to protect the most vulnerable in society. The rabbis of the Talmud went even further. They extended this level of care and respect to all people teaching,”Great is human dignity for it overrides a prohibition in the Torah.”
Time and time again, the Talmud makes clear that the well-being of people, whether part of the community or not, is of paramount importance. Time and time again, the rabbis of old teach that human dignity must be central to the very system of laws they themselves put into place. Yes, the rabbis taught the rule of law is mandatory (in this case the laws of the Torah) but not if those laws come at the expense of the value and dignity of those impacted by such laws.
And yet, as one colleague puts it, “How easy it is to allow ideology to obliterate human worth, to permit devotion to an ideal to render invisible the individual in front of us.” He continues, “It is too easy to let ideology blind us to the humanity and the need of the individual in front of us. In an age of ideological rigidity, in a time when too many put ideas or systems ahead of actual people, the Torah demands that we remember systems that are there to serve human betterment, that ideology is a tool for justice, righteousness, and love.”
As I have written previously, I have deep respect for the importance of debate and an abiding respect for differing perspectives and ideologies. They are a centerpiece of Judaism and a cornerstone of the American political system that, by design, has two parties in tension with one another. It is because of our differing perspectives and the debates that emerge from them that our community and our nation can learn, grow and adapt to ever-new challenges. At the same time, Jewish tradition makes clear, this cannot take place at the expense of human dignity. Yet over the past month I have found myself asking the same questions over and over again.
Where is the compassion?
Where is the respect for human dignity?
Where is the recognition that there are real people and real families who are hurting and there are countless more who are terrified?
“…you shall not mistreat a stranger,” the Torah teaches, “nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Eִgypt. You shall not oppress any widow or orphan.” [for] “great is human dignity.”
These words were penned over two thousand years ago… but are as relevant today as they were in antiquity.