This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, (Ex. 21:1 – 24:18) is a compendium of all kinds of laws: civil, criminal, and ritual. But one moral dictum is repeated twice in this portion and many more times throughout the rest of the Torah. Exodus 22:20 states, “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And Exodus 23:9, only eighteen verses later, reads, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The great medieval commentator Rashi explains that in the first verse, to wrong a stranger means to taunt him, and to oppress him means to take advantage of him, for example by stealing his money. In the second instance, Rashi comments on the word “feelings”, saying, and “…because you know how hard it is for him when people oppress him”.
For either the Torah or a classic commentator to remark on feelings is an extraordinary departure from the norm. It further indicates the importance of this precept and it brings the message home in a way that intellectual reasoning cannot do. If oppression feels bad to you, then it also feels bad to any person or people who are being oppressed. To be able to put yourself in the place of another and imagine their pain is not an easy task, but the Torah tells us—over and over again—that it is something we have to do.