SERMON: D’var Torah for Parashat Mishpatim

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Andy Vogel
on February 9, 2018

Shabbat shalom.  Verses found in this week’s Torah portion could not be more relevant to what is happening in the world, to what is happening in the Jewish community and in Israel.  As always, the Torah speaks to us, exactly where we are in our lives, and it reminds us of what it means to live a good life, an ethical life and a holy life. The verses from this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim:

וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ: כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
כָּל-אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם, לֹא תְעַנּוּן
אִם-עַנֵּה תְעַנֶּה, אֹתוֹ–כִּי אִם-צָעֹק יִצְעַק אֵלַי, שָׁמֹעַ אֶשְׁמַע צַעֲקָתוֹ

“You shall not wrong a stranger [an immigrant], 
or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
You shall not treat badly any widow or orphan
If you do mistreat them, I will heed to their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, 
and My anger will blaze forth…” (Exodus 22:20-23) 

This week – we should hear loudly and clearly the Torah’s moral imperative to us, when it comes to how our own country is treating the immigrants in our midst:

  • the Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to America as young children, and this is the only country they have ever known, and who still wait for some resolution of their status;
  • those thousands of immigrants among us right here in Boston, from Haiti, from El Salvador, and from other places, whose Temporary Protected Status (TPS) has been cruelly revoked by the Administration, and who are in danger of deportation later this year;
  • and so many undocumented men and women who have been swept up in recent months by immigration authorities, or who live in fear of being swept up, and being expelled, separated from their families and children and losing everything, because of a heartless policy being formulated in Washington.

And, we hear the Torah’s call to us loudly this week as Jews who are deeply connected to Israel, where the current government has formulated another shamefully policy about asylum seekers from Africa. In the past 12 years, Israel has been the destination for thousands of African refugees, from war-torn countries such as Eritrea & Sudan seeking safety. They have been terribly mistreated by the Israeli government, denied any rights, been called “infiltrators,” and other derogatory names, placed in holding centers in the desert, and now, the Government has given them a cruel choice: prison in Israel, or forced deportation back to their countries, where many of them face almost-certain death. 

In Israel, there has been a loud public outcry, and I was one of a delegation of local rabbis last week who delivered a letter to the Israeli Consulate here in Boston signed by 900 American rabbis and cantors, urging the Israeli government to listen to the words of the Torah: to treat these refugees and immigrants with compassion, and to change the policy to give them a “fair chance to file applications for refugee status, and refraining from deporting asylum seekers to countries that cannot guarantee their safety.” 

The letter said: “Our own experience of slavery and liberation, and our own experience as refugees, compel us to act with mercy and justice toward those seeking refuge among us.” [A copy of the letter’s text can be found here:

(If you’d like to learn more about the situation of the Israeli asylum seekers please read this opinion piece by Israeli commentator Yossi Klein HaLevi.) 

The great 19th century German rabbi, Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch lived in a time of the rise of new nation-states. He recognized that Governments have power, that that power could be used for goodness and for justice, to relieve pain, or to that that power could bring more pain, injustice, and suffering into the world.

Reading the verses from this week’s Torah portion, He taught this:

“The admonition against wronging the stranger [Exod. 22:20] is directed primarily to the State. “The state must not practice ona’ah [wrong-doing] against the stranger: the state must not impose on him heavier taxes or grant him fewer rights than it grants the native-born, just because he is a stranger.” 

Then he said: “Woe unto you, State leaders, if the State, too, ill treats them and makes them feel the pain of having lost their defender and supporter! Woe to the State whose widows and orphans suffer among the people, where even the official public representatives do not stand up for them and uphold their rights! … Woe unto you, if their only resort is to cry out to Me; [says God] for I will assuredly hear their cry. …if their weakest members must appeal to Me to find justice!” 

Implicit in his incredible words which he wrote over 150 years ago, is that Governments have power, but that they are ultimately run by people, people who make decisions, who can be compassionate and caring, if they so choose.

We, too — we, the People — play a role in the way Governments operate. We must speak up, and be heard, to bring the Torah’s urgent message to those who have the power to make decisions that deeply affect people’s lives. We must hear the moral imperative of the Torah, and ensure that those places to which we are connected, as Americans and as Jews, create a just, fair, and compassionate society.

Reposted from with the permission of Rabbi Andy Vogel.