Torah of anti-oppression


Leave the chains behind.

You were slaves, now you're free; break the cycle for the other.

Parshat Mishpatim could be subtitled, "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry-list." It includes prescriptions for what to do with an indentured servant, a goring ox, a witch and a kidnapper. (Spoiler alert: the last two don't figure so favorably.) On the sublime end, it also introduces the concept of sh'mitah, a Sabbath for the land. Many sugiyot, Talmudic discussions, have sprung from these pages. But the one that sticks with me is the one I've paraphrased above.

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Ex. 22:20

We see a very similar construction not once, but twice in our parsha. And if that's not enough, we hear them 34 more times in Torah! 

There is a story of a hassidic rebbe who's new in town. The first week, he gives his drasha/sermon, and it's very well received. The next week, he gives the same sermon. It is again very well received, maybe even more so than the previous week. The following week, same sermon, same reception. This goes on for week after week, and one of his hasidim/devotees timidly asks him, "rebbe, why do you give the same drasha week after week? Surely you have more to teach us!" 

"Yes, Yankeleh, I do! But until the people really hear it, I will keep giving this one."

In my imagination, a similar conversation unfolded between Moshe and God, "Divine Spirit Life of all the Worlds, why do You have me write these same words again and again? Isn't there more to say?"

"Yes, Mosheleh, but until the people really hear them, I will keep saying these:"

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

They're words that go great on a placard. But how deeply have they sunk into our hearts? I would submit that we (almost any we I can think of) could stand to hear them again. How easily do I walk past a homeless person on the street? How mindlessly do I use my iPhone, made, as it is, from irreplaceable rare earth metals mined by slave labor? And that's to say nothing of how I abuse my many accrued social privileges, even as I try to be a better human being. 

On the one hand, it's easy to go down the path of white liberal guilt and self-flagelation. Or alternatively, throw up our collective hands in despair that we can't possibly do anything about it all. But both of those paths are luxuries we can ill afford anymore, if we ever truly could. 

"It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it," we learn in the Wisdom of our Ancestors (Mishna Avot 2:21). What is your piece of the work of anti-oppression? What is our work, collectively, to not desist from? I'm asking because, though I wish I were certain of my place in this struggle, I'm not. I trust that there is wisdom in this community such that we might collect it and build a living Torah of anti-oppression. Please email your thoughts to I'm serious about doing it; I need your help.

I want to bless us that we might find ways to be in the world–large and small–that live out this basic but elusive piece of Torah. That we should let these words sink into our hearts and our actions in ways both natural and uncomfortable. And that we should aspire to a time when these words no longer need to be repeated.