The Torah in Parashat Mishpatim (22:19) establishes that offering a sacrifice to any being other than the Almighty constitutes a capital offense, punishable by death (“Zovei’ach la-elohim yacharam bilti le-Hashem le-vado”). In the very next verse, the Torah establishes the prohibition against oppressing or causing distress to a foreigner (“Ve-ger lo toneh ve-lo tilchatzenu”).
Chizkuni (see also Ibn Ezra, Peirush Ha-Arokh) offers an insightful explanation for the juxtaposition between these two commands. The gravity with which we are to treat foreign worship may lead us to reject and hold in contempt those who had engaged in such worship in the past and have now embraced Jewish faith. If the Torah instructs us to regard idolatry as a capital offense, we might have assumed, then we are entitled, if not expected, to cause anguish to those who are guilty of this offense, even once they have committed themselves to monotheistic belief. The Torah therefore commands us that just as we must resoundingly reject idolatry, we must lovingly embrace former idolaters who have denounced their past and now seek to join our ranks.
Chizkuni would likely explain in this vein the conclusion of the verse: “for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” The prophet Yechezkel (20) describes how Benei Yisrael were submerged in the idolatrous culture of Egypt, a concept that is further developed in numerous Midrashic passages. Our very nation was forged in an environment of idol-worship in which we were very involved. And despite our submergence in foreign worship, God lovingly rescued us, extricated us from the spiritual morass of ancient Egypt, and embraced us. Hence, we must not reject a former idolater seeking acceptance in our communities, as our entire nation began as idolaters.
Not even the gravest sin consigns a person to a permanent state of rejection and exclusion. Our nation’s origins teach us that regardless of what we’ve done in the past, God encourages us to work to grow and improve, whereupon we will be warmly and lovingly embraced by Him and by the rest of the nation. People’s past mistakes should not stand in the way of their acceptance in the present and future. Just as Benei Yisrael were embraced by God despite their having been entrenched in paganism, we, too, must accept and embrace those who seek to grow in faith and observance, regardless of their origins.