“Showing Sensitivity to the Helpless and the Downtrodden”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Among the 53 mitzvot that are found in parashat Mishpatim (23 positive and 30 negative) are a series of statutes that deal with showing sensitivity to the helpless and the downtrodden.

In Exodus 22:20, the Torah warns the Jewish people not to taunt or oppress a stranger, after all, we, the Jewish people, were strangers in the land of Egypt. We are further warned (Exodus 22:21): “Kohl al’mah’nah v’yah’tom loh tah’ah’noon,” You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan, for if you do cause them pain, and they cry out to Me, I [G-d] shall surely hear their cry. My anger shall blaze, and I shall kill you by the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children, orphans.

The Torah recognizes that too often, powerful people or those who regard themselves as powerful, take advantage of the weak and the helpless. Since disadvantaged people are often highly sensitive to what they perceive to be slights, even the tiniest negative act toward them adds to their pain. Obviously, the Torah prohibits abusing anyone, whether weak or strong. Scriptures, however, emphasize the prohibition of hurting converts, widows, and orphans because they are particularly vulnerable.

While the rabbis understand the word “ger” that appears in Exodus 22:20, as referring to converts to Judaism, it actually applies to any stranger. Even Jewish strangers may be vulnerable–like new residents of a city or new members of a social group. The Torah is particularly sensitive to the abuse of converts because of the tendency to look down upon them because of their non-Jewish origin. Xenophobia, fear of outsiders, was as common in those days as it is today. We have all been newcomers at one time or another and therefore need to be sensitive to the stranger.

Oppression of the widow and the orphan is expressed in the Torah in particularly dramatic terms. There are few references in Scripture where G-d speaks about His anger blazing, or threatens to kill by sword those who violate the Torah. All this underscores the extreme importance with which the Torah regards mistreating the orphan and the widow.

For those who live in so-called “enlightened” societies, it may seem farfetched to ever think of taking advantage of a widow or an orphan. After all, common sense dictates that we not do such a horrible thing. Nevertheless, we know that this is not always the case. Failure to come to the assistance of widows and orphans can actually be justified as a religious precept, as it is in some Christian doctrines. Some theologians maintain that helping widows and orphans defies the will of G-d. After all, for one reason or another, G-d wants them to suffer. By helping them, we are not only defying G-d’s will, we are actually hurting them by taking away their opportunity for contrition, either on the part of the deceased or on the part of the survivors.

We therefore see the need for the revolutionary ideas contained in this seemingly simple verse: “You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan.” Judaism in effect says that it is not for mortals to speculate why a particular person suffers. Therefore, any request for help from a widow or an orphan must not be questioned. It is our responsibility to help and leave the theology to G-d! And, if we dare cause pain to a widow or an orphan, we should expect severe retaliation from the Father of orphans and the Judge of widows.

The Sefer HaChinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) states that with this mitzvah the Torah wishes to inspire the quality of kindness and mercy in the soul of every Jew, to make certain that Jews are caring and full-hearted in all their actions. A Jew must take pity on the widow and the orphan and “see their rights in everything, even more than we would if the father [or the husband] were alive.”

The Or HaChayim (commentary on the Pentateuch by the famed Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar R’ Chaim ben Attar, 1696-1743) declares that since every human being stems from the same divine source, no one has the right to sit in judgment over another person and decide that the other–stranger, widow or orphan, is not as worthy of respect as he/she is him/herself.

Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) writes in the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 6:10 that even the widow of a king and his orphans must be treated sensitively. We are required to speak softly to them, to use gentle words, to treat them with respect, and not make them suffer through hard work or to shame them with words. We are required to have more concern for their property than for our own. From these guidelines, we see that it is not the orphan or widow’s impoverishment that concerns the Torah, but rather their sense of loss and bereavement, and the fact that they lack protection.

Jewish law therefore goes out of its way to make the position of orphans and widows more secure. Under normal circumstances any creditor who comes to collect a debt and shows a bonafide contract is entitled to collect. However, in the case of a widow or an orphan, the creditor must first take an oath that his claim is true (Talmud Shavuot 45a). The sages also state that when an orphan or widow is subpoenaed to the Bet Din, the justices of the court are required to argue for their benefit as if the judges are standing in for the deceased father or husband.

The Talmud, in Gittin 52a, states that whatever dealings orphans and widows have with any other person, they are legally entitled to have preferential treatment as if one were dealing with consecrated property.

It was the practice of the ancient court of Jewish law to appoint a wealthy, trustworthy person to care for the orphans’ and widow’s belongings and their estate in a manner that will likely earn a profit for the widow and orphans. Therefore, if the trustee makes a profit, he must give the orphan or the widow their share of the profits. But if he suffers any losses as guardian of their property, he alone is to bear the loss.

While it is forbidden to wrong an orphan, widow, or stranger, either financially or by the spoken word, it is permitted to be harsh with orphans if it is necessary to guide their lives in the right path by giving them an education and teaching them a trade or profession.

The Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel b. Meir, French exegete, c.1085-1174, grandson of Rashi) states that the prohibition of oppression means that one is forbidden to assign menial tasks to strangers, widows, or orphans. Since they have no defenders, they are more likely to become victims of exploitation, like our forefathers were in Egypt.

Because of the Torah’s insights on these matters we can now hopefully better appreciate the insightful statement of the late Sen. Hubert Humphrey who said: “A nation is judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens.” Let us pray that we live up to that high ideal.

May you be blessed.