Parshas Mishpatim: A Nation of Compassion

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Mishpatim, the narrative of Matan Torah continues.  In contrast to the Revelation at Sinai – the thunder, lightning, smoke, and shofar blast which accompanied the Aseres Ha’Dibros – as related to us in last week’s parsha, Mishpatim is a parsha with law after law detailing intricate and complex interaction between man and fellow man. 

Amongst the many laws regarding damages (neizikin), there are a number of mitzvos concerning our treatment of others, particularly those who may be more vulnerable.  Hence, the Torah says: וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ:  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם – And a stranger you shall not mistreat or oppress, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Shemos 22:20). 

We are commanded further: כָּל-אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם, לֹא תְעַנּוּן – Any widow or orphan you shall not oppress; אִם-עַנֵּה תְעַנֶּה, אֹתוֹ–כִּי אִם-צָעֹק יִצְעַק אֵלַי, שָׁמֹעַ אֶשְׁמַע צַעֲקָתוֹ – for if you shall persecute him, for if he will cry out to Me, I shall surely hear his cry (Shemos 22:21-22).

Rashi teaches: כל אלמנה ויתום לא תענון. הוּא הַדִּין לְכָל אָדָם, אֶלָּא שֶׁדִּבֵּר הַכָּתוּב בַּהוֹוֶה, לְפִי שֶׁהֵם תְּשׁוּשֵׁי כֹחַ וְדָבָר מָצוּי לְעַנּוֹתָם – Every widow or orphan you shall not oppress – the same law applies to (not) persecuting any person, but the Torah speaks of that which is more prevalent, since they are weak and it is common to find that they are persecuted. 

While we are forbidden to oppress or persecute others, we must be especially vigilant in our interactions with those who are weaker. 

R’ S.R. Hirsch comments, “אַלְמָנָה derives from אלם, to be mute… By the death of her husband, the widow has lost her voice; she no longer has someone to speak for her.  By the death of his father, the orphan remains powerless; he no longer has someone to depend on, someone to guide him.

“לֹא תְעַנּוּן (derived from) ענה: to make someone feel his עוני (poverty), his dependent position, to exploit his weakness and lack of protection.

“It says here כָּל-אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם, every widow and orphan, because not only poor widows and poor orphans, but even rich ones are exposed to exploitation and maltreatment. 

“In most countries, aliens are discriminated against and deprived of their rights – by law.  For this reason, the address in the preceding verse (22:20, quoted above) is in the singular, to warn the Jewish state against this practice.  By contrast, it is hard to find a legal system that discriminates against widows and orphans.  However, in social relations and dealings between people, they have no one to stand up for them, to support them, to guide them, and so are subject to discrimination and humiliation.  Hence in their case the Torah addresses primarily the members of society: לֹא תְעַנּוּן, do not exploit their weakness; do not make them feel the weakness of their position!

“אִם-עַנֵּה תְעַנֶּה, אֹתוֹ–כִּי אִם-צָעֹק יִצְעַק אֵלַי, Woe unto you, state leaders, if the state too ill-treats them and makes them feel the pain of having lost their defender and supporter!  Woe to the state whose widows and orphans suffer among the people, where even the official public representatives do not stand up for them and uphold their rights… Woe unto you, if their only resort is to cry out to Me; for I will assuredly hear their cry; I will make the state and society pay dearly for it, if their weakest members must appeal (only) to Me to find justice.”

Amongst the myriad of mitzvos given to us at Har Sinai – both the Written and Oral Law – are many mitzvos that govern our interaction with fellow man.  The Torah does not assume that we will be compassionate, loving, empathetic and caring towards others.  We are commanded to be so! 

The Kli Yakar teaches that all mitzvos in the Torah fall into one of two categories: bein adam la’Makom (mitzvos between man and G-d), and bein adam la’chavairo (mitzvos that govern interaction between man and his fellow).   And in regard to those mitzvos bein adam la’chavairo,   יסוד לכלם פסוק ואהבת לרעך כמוך – the foundation of all of them is “love for your fellow what you love for yourself” (Vayikra 19:18 and Kli Yakar there). 

While the thunder and lightning, the smoke and trembling mountain, the shofar blast and Divine Voice that emanated from Sinai, were surely awe-inspiring and nation altering, Parshas Mishpatim and it’s everyday laws teach us how to live as Jews. 

When there is someone more vulnerable amongst us, it is our duty, our calling, and our charge to ensure that they are not oppressed, that they have a voice, and that their needs and wants are taken into consideration, as are ours. 

The following was posted last week on FaceBook (shared with me by my son) by a resident of Jerusalem, and it is typed verbatim here as it was posted:

On the light rail tonight, a woman, probably in her upper 50s, is looking sad.  I ask her if she’s okay.  She replies that she had a lonely Shabbat; her husband died a number of months ago.  Her only child could not make it in this week.  She was speaking loudly.  Others heard our conversation.  Literally, within a minute, she received eight invitations for Shabbat, whenever she needed one.  She received, not just invitations in principle, but also phone numbers to call when she just wants someone with whom to speak.  She managed to smile by the time she got off the train.”

In the merit of our acts of loving-kindness done to others, and in the merit of opening our hearts and minds to the plight of our suffering brethren, may the RS”O open His storehouses of blessing and do kindness with us.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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