"You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" Exodus 22:20

By Elaine Robinson, February 11, 2010

This verse is one of my favourites in the Torah. The command not to oppress a stranger appears, according to Talmud Baba Matzia 59b, at least 36 times and, in my opinion, is at the heart of Judaism.

What does this mean practically? Rashi explains why there is a need for the text to use two verbs: to wrong and to oppress. He claims that they each have a different practical application: not wronging means to not taunt them with words; and not to oppress means not to rob them of their money. Thus we are told not to verbally abuse or shame, or to economically deprive the stranger.

Rashi goes on to say the reason we should not oppress or wrong a stranger is because we know what it was like to be strangers ourselves, and if we taunt or oppress, they will turn it right back on us and taunt us for our own oppression. Later in the parashah, the commandment to “not oppress the stranger” is repeated with a different ending: not because “you were strangers” but rather because “you know how it feels to be a stranger” (23:9).

The text calls both upon our compassion and our historical memory to think about how it felt to be oppressed ourselves. We are constantly put to the test. Who is a stranger today? One who has come from another country to live elsewhere; someone who comes to seek asylum, or refuge. And so we are reminded at least 36 times not to taunt, economically deprive or to remind them from where they have come.

Last updated: 4:46pm, February 11 2010