We’re often taught that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, beauty is only skin deep, and we should never judge a book by its cover. But what about when there’s a disconnect between what we’re told is on the inside and what we see on the outside — when one’s actions leave something to be desired, though supposedly one’s heart is in the right place? Is what’s on the inside still what counts? This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, suggests otherwise, as it begins:
“These are the rules (mishpatim) that you shall set before them [the Israelites]:” (Ex. 21:1)
What follows is just that: an extensive list of specific rules governing everything from holiday observances and dietary practice to ethics in business and the treatment of animals. There’s the call to release indentured servants in the seventh year, and the designation of murder and kidnapping as capital offenses — the same punishment incurred for insulting one’s father or mother! This Torah portion famously proclaims “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Ex. 21:24), and calls us to take care of the widow and orphan.
All in all, there are 53 separate mishpatim, “rules,” to be followed in this week’s Torah portion, comprising a little bit of just about everything. Yet there is one rule that stands out, one that is repeated twice in this particular Torah portion and — according to the Talmud (Bava M’tzia 59b) — 36 times in the Torah overall, making it the most often mentioned commandment in all of Torah:
“You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 22:20)
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 23:9)
Often when we cite this all-important commandment, we quote the text as it appears in Leviticus (19:34), where it is written slightly differently. There we are told: “You shall love each one [stranger] as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Yet, of the 36 times this commandment appears in the Torah, love is only mentioned this once. And it is notably absent in Parashat Mishpatim, where the rule is first introduced and repeated. “Love the stranger as yourself” is a beautiful, poetic, compelling ideal. But, ultimately, love is subjective, cannot be measured or proven, and is less effective than action in attaining social justice. You shall not oppress the stranger, is what matters most.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all loved the stranger? Of course. And this week’s Torah portion notes that ideally, our feelings should drive our actions. As the Elder of Slobodka underscores, we should be motivated to embrace the stranger by our ability “to feel and participate in [their] joy and distress ... as if these had affected [us] personally;... [to feel] their joys and sorrows with them, without any differentiation.” (Nosson Tzi Finkel of Slobodka in Torah Gems: Exodus, p. 163). Yet sometimes love and empathy elude us. And, as we know all too well, even those who profess love sometimes act contrary to it. Ultimately, it’s not what is on the inside that matters; it’s what we do, regardless of how we feel, that counts.
So we are to welcome strangers, remove obstacles to their inclusion, eliminate barriers to their joining our communities. We should not ostracize strangers, create distance between us, or maintain one safety net for those we identify as “us” and another (or none at all) for those we say are “other.” Indeed, we should not treat anyone as other at all. In our secular lives, too, our laws, our rules, and the way we structure and frame our society should support this. Regardless of how we may feel, whether or not we profess love, our actions must not oppress the stranger.
This week’s Torah portion shows us that love alone simply isn’t sufficient. It doesn’t tell us — or even suggest — that love will conquer all. What does the Torah give us? Specific and extensive rules, outlining how we are supposed to interact with others and look out for their well-being. There’s a notable absence of concern for emotion, which cannot be regulated. Punishments underscore the importance of the Torah’s specific rules and commandments, and the expectation they will be upheld. These are the ways the Torah conveys its concern for — and commitment to — creating a just, equitable, and safe society.
The American philosopher, Dr. Cornell West teaches: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” As this week’s Torah portion reminds us, we don’t get to justice by professing what we feel inside: we build a just society by legislating and enforcing the behaviors that make love tangible on the outside. We spell out love in mishpatim — in concrete rules, steps, and actions that can truly create the just society toward which we all strive.
Rabbi Stephanie M. Alexander is the senior rabbi at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, SC. She is a past-president and founding member of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, a faith-based social justice organization of 29 diverse congregations.
Toward the end of Parashat Mishpatim, Moses reads the record of the covenant to the Israelites. Inexplicably to the modern reader, the Israelites respond in a strange order: naaseh v'nishma, literally, “we will do and then we will hear”.(Ex. 24:7). We might ask why would we take on an obligation before hearing it, especially since this blind faith seems antithetical to the Jewish tradition of debate and dissent. Yet when we project the concept through the lens of creating a just society, we find an important directive.
Naaseh v'nishma is put on theoretical display in this portion:
"You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans." (Ex. 22:21-23)
In these verses, the Torah invites us to imagine our loved ones as the vulnerable population that we have ignored and marginalized. It implores individuals to care for the neediest among us, to see people not as lesser or as problems, but as fellow humans created in the image of God. We must not shy away from the enormity of society’s problems, but engage, reaching beyond our position and intimidation to be sources (and forces) of good in our communities.
There is a story of a young rabbi who once set out to change the world. But he found it was difficult to change the world, so he tried to change his country. When he found he couldn’t change his country, he began to focus on his town. However, he discovered that he couldn’t even change the town, and so as he grew older, he tried to change his family.
Years passed and the rabbi finally realized the only thing he could change was himself. He came to appreciate that if long ago he had started with himself, then he could have made an impact on his family. And, his family could have made an impact on their town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and they could all indeed have changed the world.
One way for all of us to overcome the paralyzing weight of our many societal issues is to start with ourselves. How? Strive every day to lead with gratitude, to be generous to those who need it most, and to be kind to everyone you encounter. These individual acts of human dignity are some of the simplest acts of justice. And when we act for justice, perhaps even before we know why we act or the impact of our action, the justice compounds. Like the young rabbi, if we start with ourselves, our actions have the potential to build and spread. If we can internalize the moral voice of Parashat Mishpatim and its "concrete rules, steps and actions," then, as Rabbi Alexander writes, we "can truly create the just society toward which we all strive." Sometimes we just have to naaseh and bring our holy Torah to life without reservation or expectation.
Rabbi Alex Kress is the Reform Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel at UCLA. He loves to explore the avant-garde of 21st century Jewish practice and works to incorporate out-of-the-box ideas to make Judaism meaningful, relevant, and fun.
Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 566-592; Revised Edition, pp. 511-538
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 427-450
Haftarah for Shabbat Sh'kalim, II Kings 12:5−16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp.1,647-48; Revised Edition, pp. 1,451-52