וְגֵר לֹא תִלְחָץ וְאַתֶּם יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exodus 23: 9
It is said that when someone abuses another person it is because he was once abused. The trauma caused by one’s experience and suffering is now projected onto a new victim. The psychologist Robert Parrado explained in an interview that in a study on abusers it was found that “… 100% of the abusers we treated were victims of abuse when they were children”.
Abuse, then, becomes repetitive, ad nauseam. Because the new victim will inevitably become an abuser. Abused children will be adult abusers. Victims of violence will become violent. And persecuted, persecutors. The cycle of abusers and abused is recreated across generations
How can society overcome this compulsive repetition? How can this circle of abuse be repaired?
This week’s Parasha, Mishpatim, contains a large number of laws in what constitutes the first code of Jewish law after the 10 Commandments.
It is worthwhile to analyze the first of these laws, that of the Hebrew slave (אמה עבריה עבד עברי). When a man or a woman were sold as servants. When they ran out of money or did not have how to pay their debts, etc.
The Tora mentions the details of the relationship of the master with his servants. But surprisingly, especially for that time and context, the Tora does NOT talk about the obligations of the slaves to their boss, but about something that until then was unknown: the rights of the slave. For example: the maximum amount of years a slave can work; his conjugal rights, which remain in effect during slavery; that the slave cannot be treated with violence or humiliation; that if the master harms the slave bodily, the slave is free, etc.
Remember that these laws are being presented to individuals who until a few weeks ago had been “slaves” of the tyrant Pharaoh. And in Egypt they had been treated with violence, humiliation and were deprived of any basic rights.
Why does the Tora start talking about the rights of the slave?
Let’s try to imagine the psychological impact of this declaration of human rights on the minds of the Hebrews. By mentioning slavery, there is an acknowledgment of the trauma that the Jews endured for more than two centuries. But Divine Law now requires overcoming the dangerous tendency towards victimization. And it proposes a difficult, but not impossible, paradigm shift. It is as if God says so to His people: “What you have lived in the past, what you suffered, cannot condition what you will do to others in the future. You were abused by the Egyptians, but I want you to know that this treatment was inhuman, and I condemn it. And I forbid it. It cannot be repeated. The worst thing that could happen to you is that from being abused you become abusers. Therefore, I want to teach you that if the roles will ever be reversed, and you become masters of other people, do not repeat the behavior of your oppressors. Treat whoever works for you with respect. DO NOT TREAT THEM AS YOU WERE TREATED. TREAT THEM HOW YOU WOULD HAVE WANTED TO BE TREATED.
This idea is deepened in our Parasha a little later: (Exodus 23: 9): “Do not abuse the stranger [the individual that local law does not protect] because you know what it means to be a stranger, since you were stranger in Egypt “
The trauma of the abused, the “inevitable” compulsion to abuse, must be channeled in another way. The Tora taught us to free ourselves from the abused / abuser circle indicating us that we are not condemned to abuse. And the best (or only) way to break the circle of abuse is by behaving with extra compassion with those who are or might be abused.
Thus, the Jewish slaves will achieve what seemed impossible. Overcome the psychological trauma they had suffered in Egypt. The Tora turns the negative experience, the abuse of a vulnerable individual, into something highly positive: empathy with those who are most vulnerable.