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Parshas Mishpatim

Teachable Moments

By Rabbi Label Lam

Do not offend a stranger (verbally) and do not oppress him (financially) because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Shemos 22:20)

Because you were strangers: If you hurt him with words he can say to you that you also come from strangers. “Do not tease friend about a blemish that you- yourself possess!” A stranger is someone who was not born in that country but rather came from a different country to live there. (Rashi)

It sounds a little odd that we should not put down a stranger is because the same thing could be said about us! Is that a worthy reason? Don’t do it because it’s offensive! It’s wrong! That’s all! Do we need a justification at all? Why then are we reminded that we were strangers in Egypt as a reason not to speak hurtful words to a stranger?

It could be that we might even have a stronger subconscious tendency to look down on someone that reminds us of our own weakness or vulnerability. Perhaps that’s what Rashi means but maybe there’s another purpose to those words, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

One of my boys, when he was in grade school, was being picked on daily. We wanted badly to champion his cause but he refused to identify the instigators. The administration and Rebbe were consulted. Attempts were made to squelch it. Nothing changed. The poor kid came home in tears every day. We all know the remedy. Kids who pick on others only do it when they sense that they are getting a reaction. There’s a tendency to want to tell a child (or an adult) “Don’t let them bother you!” Unfortunately it rarely works. If someone tells you not to think about pink elephants suddenly they are dancing even more in your head. He was in pain and we were frustrated. What were we to do?

With help from heaven I stumbled upon a practical approach. At first I sat with my boy and asked him what they had been saying about him that made him feel so tortured. The words bled out slowly, “dummy-head”, “cookoo”, “stinky” and stuff like that. I wrote down each on a piece of paper and tried to logically dispute the veracity of their claims. I soon realized though, that I was talking to the head when it was the heart that hurt. Then in I put my money where their mouths were and I gave him three dollars- one for each false utterance. I now had his undivided attention. I asked him to please do me a favor and write down each insulting phrase they say tomorrow and that I would pay him a dollar for every one. I even gave him a special pad of paper and a pen for the occasion.

Well, the next day he came home with a long face covered with sadness. I was curious to see the paper. Empty! He reported that nobody teased him today. It worked! Once they realized that not only was he not poised to be hurt by their words and that he was happily awaiting them their thrill was ended and so they ceased.

Now that it was finally over, I didn’t want to lose this precious parental opportunity to crown the episode with a lasting lesson. This was the teachable moment! I felt it necessary to tell my son the following which he accepted with unusual depth and sensitivity, “Now that you know what it feels like to be picked on you should make certain not to do it to anybody else. If there is ever a kid who is different or isolated or is for whatever odd reason a candidate for being picked on you should make it your business to befriend or defend him. With that in mind, son, maybe this whole messy episode will have been worthwhile!”

It could be that our struggles and even our most suffering situations, just like being in Egypt, can be converted into super assets. How so? In English there’s a difference between the words, “sympathy” and “empathy”. “Sympathy” is a remote feeling of pity while “empathy” is a feeling of identification with another’s pain. Maybe it’s a strategy to keep from feeling superior to the stranger amongst us to consciously recall our vulnerabilities and realize teachable moments.

DvarTorah, Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Label Lam and

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