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Torah Sparks

February 1, 2003 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Exodus 21:1 - 24:18 (Hertz, p.305; Etz Hayim, p.456)
Triennial Cycle II: Exodus 22:4 - 23:19 (Hertz, p. 290; Etz Hayim, p. 465)
Haftarah: I Samuel 20:18 - 42 (Mahar Hodesh) (Hertz, p. 948; Etz Hayim, p. 1216)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Torah Portion Summary

(21:1-11) The beginning of the Covenant Code. Laws regarding master and slave.

(21:12-17) Capital crimes.

(21:18-22:3) Laws of personal injury, property damage, theft, and negligence.

(22:4-14) Laws governing different kinds of property custodians: unpaid, paid, and borrowers.

(22:15-26) Laws against the seducer, occult practices, and forbidding the oppression of the powerless and the weak, including the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the poor.

(22:27-30) Miscellaneous laws concerning respect for authority, gifts to the priests, and the prohibition of eating torn flesh (treifah).

(23:1-9) Laws of righteous behavior toward others.

(23:10-19) Laws concerning the Sabbatical year, Shabbat, and Festivals.

(23:20-33) An epilogue exhorting the Israelites to follow God's law, emphasizing the rewards they will receive if they do so.

(24:1-18) The covenant is ratified through a formal ceremony of acceptance. Moses and the elders eat a meal and see a vision of God. Moses alone ascends the mountain to receive the stone tablets, remaining there for forty days and nights.

Discussion Theme: Oppressing the Stranger

"You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If you at all afflict them, and they cry to me, I will surely hear their cry; and my anger shall be inflamed, and I will kill you with the sword; then your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless." (Exodus 22: 21-23)

  1. Do not oppress the stranger in your land for if you do so, he will retaliate by reminding you of your own origin saying, 'You, too, came from strangers" because you are descendants of those Israelites who were strangers in Egypt. (Rashi)
  2. The Torah approaches this prohibition from an ethical point of view. Do not treat a stranger unjustly, because you have more power than he has in the Jewish society in which you both live, and it would not be right for you to exploit the advantage you have over him. Similarly, it is not fair to be cruel to a widow or an orphan just because your position is more secure than theirs. Remember that our ancestors were also politically and economically insecure in Egypt. Did they appreciate or enjoy being exploited! (Abraham Ibn Ezra)
  3. Do not wrong a stranger or oppress him, thinking as you might that none can deliver him out of your hand; for you know that you were strangers in the land of Egypt and 'I saw the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppressed' (Exodus 3:9) you, and I avenged your cause on them, because 'I behold the tears of such who are oppressed and have no comforter, and on the side of their oppressors there is power' (Ecclesiastes 4:1) and I deliver each one 'from him that is too strong for him' (Psalms 35:10). Likewise, you shall not afflict the widow and the fatherless child, for I will hear their cry, for these people do not rely upon themselves but trust in Me. And in another verse God added this reason: 'for ye know the soul of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt' (Ex. 23:9). That is to say, you know that every stranger feels depressed, and is always sighing and crying, and his eyes are always directed towards God. Therefore, God will have mercy upon him even as He showed mercy to you... not because of your merits, but only on account of the fact that God has mercy on all who are oppressed." (Nachmanides)
  4. Because humans are the image of God, they are endowed by their Creator with three intrinsic dignities: infinite value (the image created by God is priceless); equality (there can be no preferred image of God; that would constitute idolatry); and uniqueness (images created by humans from one mold resemble each other, but God creates God's images from one couple or mold, and each is distinct from every other). (Rabbi Yitz Greenberg in Living in the Image of God)

Sparks for Reflection

What would it mean to take these verses from the Torah seriously? If economics and culture and politics upheld Greenberg's three dignities, how would society look differently? How can we create societal conditions and transform human behavior toward greater respect for disadvantaged segments of our population?

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