Parshas Mishpatim: Don’t Oppress the Convert!
by Rabbi Chaim Coffman
“Do not oppress a stranger; you know the feelings of a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9)
There are many verses in the Torah that warn us about the mistreatment of converts to Judaism. The reason the Torah tells us is because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. This means since you understand better than others what this feels like, do not do it to them.
We have to be more sensitive to their needs. We are not allowed to remind them of their past because of the negative feelings it may bring up; the same goes for baalei teshuvah (returnees to Judaism) as well.
Since these people have left their former religions, moved into a Jewish community and sacrificed friends and family along the way, don’t they deserve our compassion and help? How could someone be so cruel and not understand this basic idea?
The problem is that when someone wants to convert to Judaism, the communities around the world are skeptical and want to make sure that they are converting for the right reason and are genuinely sincere. At the same time, when this has been proven, the Jewish community should do what they can to help.
The Torah doesn’t teach us things that are obvious, there must be a deeper reason why this command is here. The answer is that it must be a lack of sensitivity on our part that the Torah has to tell us this.
People are human and make mistakes and say things they shouldn’t and act in a way they shouldn’t. At the same time, we need to be more cognizant of what we say especially when it comes to converts.
They deserve our respect for the hardships that they have gone through and our help when it is needed. We must not make the mistake and think that our skepticism of their sincerity is equivalent to making them feel bad or on guard when they don’t need to be.
Skepticism is ok; treating them poorly is not. The Torah here wants us to know that even if we doubt them, it does not give us the right to abuse them in any way. We forget sometimes and get caught up in how religious we are and what we have to guard ourselves against that people have feelings and need to be treated properly.
If I had a dime for the people that contact me about issues they have in Jewish communities of things said or done, I would be a very wealthy person today. I remind them not to mix up Jews and Judaism. This is very important because we as Jews have the obligation to uphold the Torah to the highest standard and we sometimes fail.
This is not a problem of the Torah but rather human deficiency. The Torah is precise in every place telling us not to oppress converts. While this may be obvious, we sometimes don’t internalize the message and make mistakes.
We have to remember that we were once strangers in a strange land. If we think in those terms and remember the compassion others had for us, we will act accordingly and have compassion for the convert to Judaism who has given up so much to connect to the Jewish people!