If You Abuse Him
Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )
This Parsha enumerates many "Laws Between Man and Man." The common denominator among them is that the strong is accountable for his treatment of the weak. The person with the upper hand is enjoined to be mindful of those weaker than he and treat them with the respect he would his equals. This point is made at the very beginning of the Parsha when the laws of treating one's servant are discussed. The emphasis is on the servant leaving his master and his servitude (the term "going out" appears seven times in this section - an indication of its centrality). Let us examine verses and their Rashi-comments regarding the laws for treating the stranger.
"You shall not abuse or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt."
For you were strangers - RASHI: If you abuse him, he, too, can abuse you by saying to you 'You too descend from strangers.' With the same fault that you have, don't reproach your fellow man.
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
This is a strange comment, when you think about it. Rashi is saying that a reason for not abusing the stranger is that he may get even with you and abuse you in response! This is quite a self-centered motivation for not being unjustly abusive. The Torah mentions 36 different times that we should be decent to those less fortunate, because we too suffered at the hands of the Egyptians. Is this the meaning for this oft-repeated phrase - that we should think twice because he can strike back at us and hurt us too?
To get a better understanding, let us look at another verse in our Parsha which gives a very similar command.
"Do not oppress a stranger. You know the soul of the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
The soul of the stranger - RASHI: How hard it is for him when he is oppressed.
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
Here Rashi emphasizes the emotional empathy one should feel for the stranger because the Jew has "been there" and should be able to appreciate his suffering. So, he should not make it any worse by abusing him.
These two Rashi-comments suggest two very different reasons for being decent to the stranger. One, a self-centered, "take care of yourself" attitude; the other, an empathetic identification with the stranger's plight which will prompt us to treat him fairly. Why the difference?
The Torah actually makes the difference. In one place it mentions: "You know the soul of the stranger" ; in the other place it does not.
But why this difference?
An Answer: One might want to believe that if a person experienced cruelty himself, he would be quite sensitive to this and be careful not to be abusive to others. Unfortunately people are not always that way. We know that abused children may become abusive parents. Although these parents themselves experienced the terror of such abuse, they could nevertheless perpetrate it on their own children. So having been slaves in Egypt may not be enough of a motivation for some people. These people who are not moved by others’ suffering, are appealed to by striking a self-centered theme. Don't do this to the stranger for you may get pain back in spades.
Yet there are more loving, more caring more sensitive people in the world. For these the Torah reminds them that they "know the soul of the stranger" and thus should be careful not to hurt their feelings.
We see how the Torah appeals to all kinds of people, making sure that these different personalities are spoken to according to their viewpoint.