Empathy With The Weak

Empathy With The Weak

By Rabbi David Algaze

“You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

(Shemot 22:20)


“Do not oppress a stranger; you know the feelings of a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

(id. 23:9)


Emphasis is a sign of the relative importance one gives a subject matter. When a point is made over and over again, it is evident that the writer wants to give the issue a prominent place in the hierarchy of things. Although all the commandments have equal importance and we are obliged to honor each and every one of them, it is noteworthy that the Torah opts to reiterate some more than others. One commandment is repeated 36 times in the Torah. It is not Shabbat or kashrut or the prohibition against murder; it is the commandment to be sensitive to the stranger! Why is that?

This seemingly “light” mitzvah of loving the stranger, not oppressing him with words or deeds, is repeated because we are usually prone to take advantage of the weak and the helpless, and the Torah knows that this is one commandment that we may have more difficulty in grasping. This law is specifically related to the convert who attaches himself to the Jewish people, but in reality the same principle may apply to any stranger – even a fellow Jew who is new to a community or neighborhood. All must be treated equally, but a special sensitivity should be displayed towards the stranger who would feel insecure and uncomfortable in new surroundings. We must make strangers feel at ease, never reminding them of their origins or making them feel uncomfortable in any way.

The Torah reveals here a profound insight into the psychology of Man. Despite all of our cultural and social norms, we tend to deal with the weak, with the stranger, and with the newcomer in manners that differ from those we display towards our familiar people. Anti-Semitism is a clear example of this dark corner in the heart of Man. Although we declare with our mouths the principle of equality, we do not always behave in that manner. As in George Orwell’ s famous quote, “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” we too are likely to treat certain people, especially minorities we perceive as weak, as being less equal than others. This is an unfortunate human trait and this is precisely what the Torah wants us to change.

Jews have known throughout history persecution and prejudice, and this has made us more sensitive towards the oppressed and the defenseless

The verse adds a reason for this notion: We understand the feelings of strangers because we were there. The entire experience of suffering in Egypt may have been designed to refine our human character to make us more profoundly sensitive to the needs of others, especially the feeble and the frail. Compassion is one of the defining characteristics of the Jewish people. The Talmud calls the Jews “merciful people who are the descendants of merciful people.”

Jews have known throughout history persecution and prejudice, and this has made us more sensitive towards the oppressed and the defenseless. We who have known humiliation and suffering must always refresh our memories of these tragedies and treat the weak with the knowledge of how much it hurts to be insulted. We who know how much help we needed must provide the weak with his needs. These admonitions are directed not only to the individual but also to the State. The Jewish state is not to practice any form of oppression against foreigners because they are aliens, such as imposing heavier taxes or limiting their rights, and not to restrict in any form the exercise of any means of gaining their livelihood. It should be noted here that these laws apply to converts to Judaism or any foreigner so long as their aims are not inimical to the Jewish state.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes the juxtaposition of these verses to the preceding verse that tells us that even a native-born Jew of the purest descent loses his right to be a part of the Jewish community when he departs from the basic principle of the Jewish faith. In contrast, a heathen born to another people, as soon as he attaches himself to Judaism, he can demand the fullest equality with any Jew. By this juxtaposition we are taught that it is not race nor descent but simply the inner spiritual and moral worth of a person that give him the right of a man and a citizen. If we are not to adopt these values, we run the risk of descending to the horrors of the Egyptian theory of slavery and the disastrous mishandling of human beings.

Sensitivity is one of the hallmarks of the Jewish character, and it has been forged in the crucible of our painful experiences in Exile. Here we refer to the “stranger” as a paradigm, and it includes all people who are weak or out of place or insecure in any fashion or place. Therefore, if we are to act as Jews we must emphasize in all our actions this aspect of compassion, empathy with the weak, the newcomer, the vulnerable, by refraining from any offense, slur, or slight, and providing them with respect and any other need they may require. Sometimes, a smile to a newcomer or offering some form of help is all it takes. In the latest snowstorms we witnessed many instances of good people acting helpfully toward others. In our synagogues and meeting places we should do no less. We well know how much it hurts to be offended or ignored or taunted. We have been there and it is incumbent on all of us to act towards others with the empathy and kindliness that we learned were so lacking when we were slaves in “the land of Egypt.”

Rabbi David Algaze is the founder and Rav of Havurat Yisrael, Forest Hills. He is a noted public speaker and author and is the President of the international Committee for the Land of Israel.


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