Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:
The story: This week’s parsha (Torah portion), Mishpatim, is a biggie on the social justice and service front. The Israelites have just received the ten commandments at Mt. Sinai (kind of a big deal) – and in this parsha, they hear more including the first two appearances of the commandment not to oppress the stranger: “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20) and similarly, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (23:9)
The takeaway: When you think about it, it’s pretty incredible that the Jewish commandments would include the mandate not to oppress others – and stress it here not once, but twice. And the reason? Because we ourselves know, in our souls, what it feels like to be oppressed.
Throughout recent history, these verses have been at the root of Jewish participation in local, national and global efforts to support marginalized populations – from the Civil Rights movement, to the crisis in Darfur. And yet for those of us who live in relative privilege and safety, far away from any sense of real-life oppression, it can be a challenge to continue to identify with the heart and soul of the stranger.
The “to-do”: This parsha begs the question: how do we continue to remember the soul of the stranger? How do we tap into that sense of obligation to others that’s born of connection and empathy? One way (though certainly not the only way!) is to get to know the communities around us better. To meet people face to face, and listen to their stories and needs. Try volunteering with an organization like 826 – a national literacy, tutoring and writing organization that engages young students in story telling. Or get involved with Just Congregations, an organization that works within synagogues and communities to identify community organizing strategies that truly reflect the needs of the community.
Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website.