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The Value of Inclusion

February 11, 2016

The other week my children decided to have a dance party before going to bed. We found videos on YouTube of their favorite pop songs and they had a blast dancing and singing along. As I stood there watching, I had no clue what they were singing and I had never heard of any of these songs. And I realized that I had no interest in any of them. In the cyclical course of history, I knew at that moment that I had become my father.

Twice in our parsha we are warned against oppressing the stranger. And each time the Torah gives a historical reference point to explain why this prohibition is so severe:

Exodus 22:20:

וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם

And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 23:9

וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

On the surface, the explanation in the two verses appears to be one and the same. But a more careful reading reveals that this is not so. The first verse emphasizes the historical fact that we were once strangers while the second verse emphasizes our capacity to empathize with the stranger because of our experience.

Rashi elaborates on these differences. On the first pasuk he writes:

כי גרים הייתם – אם הוניתו אף הוא יכול להונותך ולומר לך אף אתה מגרים באת מום שבך אל תאמר לחברך.

If you wrong him, he can wrong you back and say to you: You also come from strangers. If you have a blemish do not point it out in your friend. Or, in modern day parlance, the pot should not call the kettle black.

On the second pasuk Rashi comments:

את נפש הגר – כמה קשה לו כשלוחצים אותו

How painful it is for him when others oppress him.

On this pasuk Rashi calls on our moral sensibilities and collective memory. Just as we are commanded to experience and relive the Exodus from Egypt every year at Pesach, we are supposed to internalize the emotions that were felt by our ancestors and inculcated in us – sensitivity to the stranger, to the vulnerable.

While this is surely the loftier goal, Rashi realizes that not everyone has such a capacity for empathy. It is for this reason that the Torah also provides a more selfish – if less admirable – justification for not oppressing the stranger. It’s in your own best interest because you have just as many faults.

Nechama Leibowitz asks why this explanation is necessary. Shouldn’t the Torah focus on the positive, lofty goal of truly feeling for and empathizing with the other?

She gives a powerful answer:

“A history of alienation and slavery, the memory of your own humiliation is by itself no guarantee that you will not oppress the stranger in your own country once you have gained independence and left it all behind you…
The fact that “you were strangers in the land of Egypt” is certainly no adequate motivation for not oppressing or vexing the stranger. On the contrary, how often do we find that the slave or exile, who gains power and freedom, or anyone who harbors the memory of suffering to himself or his forbears, finds compensation for his former sufferings by giving free rein to his tyrannical instincts, when he has the opportunity to lord it over others? (Studies in Exodus. Mishpatim 3. “Oppress Not the Stranger,” 384).

With this in mind, it is worth noting that immediately following the first warning against oppressing the stranger in our parsha the Torah warns against mistreating other vulnerable members of society:

Exodus 22:21 שמות כב:כא

כָּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן׃

Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child

The Mechilta records a debate over the scope of this pasuk:

Mekhilta 22:21:1:

כל אלמנה ויתום לא תענון אין לי אלא אלמנה ויתום. שאר כל אדם מנין – תלמוד לומר לא תענון דברי רבי ישמעאל. רבי עקיבא אומר, אלמנה ויתום שדרכן לענות, בהן דבר הכתוב

(Exodus 22:21) “Every widow and orphan you shall not afflict”: This tells me only of widow and orphan. Whence do I derive (the same for) all men? It is, therefore, written “lo ta’anun”, (the additional “nun” implying an extension of plurality). These are the words of R. Yishmael. R. Akiva says: Widow and orphan are more vulnerable to affliction. Scripture speaks of the common instance.

The conventional understanding is that R. Akiva takes the Torah literally and understands the prohibition to be specifically against mistreating the orphan and the widow.

That is not to say that it is acceptable to mistreat others, but this specific mitzvah applies only to them.

This is how the Rambam understands it:

רמב”ם הל’ דעות ו:י

(י) חַיָּב אָדָם לְהִזָּהֵר בִּיתוֹמִים וְאַלְמָנוֹת מִפְּנֵי שֶׁנַּפְשָׁן שְׁפָלָה לִמְאֹד וְרוּחָם נְמוּכָה אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהֵן בַּעֲלֵי מָמוֹן. אֲפִלּוּ אַלְמָנָתוֹ שֶׁל מֶלֶךְ וִיתוֹמָיו מֻזְהָרִים אָנוּ עֲלֵיהֶן שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות כב-כא) “כָּל אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם לֹא תְעַנּוּן”. …

An individual must be careful concerning orphans and widows since their feelings are exceedingly lowly and their spirits are cast down. Even though they may be wealthy and we are commanded concerning even the widow of a king and his orphans, as it says, “You shall not oppress ANY orphan or widow.”

Rabbi Yishmael, on the other hand, understands the Torah’s prohibition as apply to all people. The Torah specifies the widow and orphan because, as Rashi explains, דיבר הכתוב בהווה לפי שהם תשושי כח ודבר מצוי לענותם – the Torah speaks in contemporary terms since they are weak and it is commonplace to oppress them.

I think that is an inaccurate understanding of the debate. Rabbi Yishmael indeed feels that the prohibition applies to all individuals. It is wrong to mistreat any person, two common examples being widows and orphans.

But Rabbi Akiva does not truly limit it to widows and orphans. For Rabbi Akiva the prohibition applies to anyone who is דרכן לענות – vulnerable to affliction or regularly afflicted. Or in the words of Rambam anyone who fits the description of שֶׁנַּפְשָׁן שְׁפָלָה לִמְאֹד וְרוּחָם נְמוּכָה.

Rabbi Akiva maintains that the prohibition applies to any group of people who is vulnerable and susceptible to mistreatment.

This understanding has particular relevance on this, the first Shabbos of February. February has been designated as North American Inclusion Month by Yachad. It is a chance for our community to affirm our commitment to inclusion of those who are physically and/or developmentally disabled. We recognize that as a group these people may be vulnerable and susceptible to oppression. Not only do we stand up against mistreatment of the disabled but we actively seek to include them in our community because we recognize that we have much to learn from them and they have much to contribute to the community. Our community is richer when all groups of people are valued and included.

Over the course of this month we will explore themes of inclusion and reaffirm our commitment to this important value.

Shabbat Shalom.


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