Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18) 

Rabbi David Stav 

It is curious that our weekly Torah portion, Parshat Mishpatim, which provides the basic tenets of our judicial system – laws concerning servants; murderers and other criminals; specific penalties assigned to every kind of criminal act; properly applied rules of evidence, reaching verdicts according to majority rule, and more; contains one crime without any punishment whatsoever. No court-imposed penalty is associated with the violation of the law, “You shall not oppress any widow or orphan” [Ex. 22:21]. Why is this?

The answer comes in the following verses, where the Almighty promises: “If you oppress him, [beware,] for if he cries out to Me, I will surely hear his cry. My wrath will be kindled, and I will slay you with the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans” [ibid., 22:22-23]. God promises that He will not wait for the authorities to act. Instead, He will react directly, exacting harsh penalties on each and every one of us.

Why would He do that? Why does God not allow the judicial system, which is responsible for upholding law and order, to rule on this matter, as well? Does our entire society need to suffer because the competent authorities fail to respond to whatever had been done to those people?

In seeking an answer to these questions, it would behoove us to revisit how those verses begin. The Torah warns us against causing widows and orphans to suffer. This itself is puzzling: since one of the basic principles of the Torah is to love other human beings and care for them, it follows that causing any distress to widows and orphans is forbidden. If so, why does the Torah need to stress the prohibition concerning widows? Moreover, all laws clearly apply to all human beings, so why does the Torah need to emphasize the words “any widow”?

Sure enough, Rashi (11th-century France), one of the greatest Torah commentators, comments on this verse: “The same applies to all people, but Scripture speaks of the usual situation, since they [widows and orphans] are vulnerable and are frequently oppressed.”

Since the Torah singles them out for special consideration, however, we could be misled to think that the prohibition of causing distress to a widow specifically applies to an old woman helplessly laying neglected on a nursing home bed or in her run-down apartment. This is not the case. The verse emphasizes that we are not to torment ANY widow, and in the Midrash, our Sages commented that the Torah wishes to emphasize that this prohibition also applies to powerful and wealthy widows, queens and noblewomen.

What is it about the condition of widows that demands direct Divine intervention, even women who are quite powerful?

The Vilna Gaon, one of the most important 18th-century Lithuanian Jewish thinkers, was asked by his elderly mother what she should say in the Heavenly Court when her time came. He answered that she should tell her Heavenly host that she was a widow in the earthly world for twenty-five years. This would cause the Gates of Heaven to open for her.

Widows need not be physically frail. Rather, first and foremost, the definition of widows and orphans is that they are alone. What will happen to them? Who will take care of the things they need? Conceptually, any person who feels left utterly alone is considered a widow or an orphan, regardless of one’s economic state. He or she feels like the protective bubble enveloping him or her is vanishing, and is now left alone to face the world.

As a society, we have a central role to play in combating this dreadful feeling of loneliness. We can provide financial assistance and support, but that alone is not enough, because it won’t always make us sensitive enough to their needs. The widow and orphan could even appeal to the authorities, but they may not always be treated properly. It is therefore important for the Torah to stress that God handles justice for these people directly.

The Torah does not specify what ultimately happened following the appeal to the courts, but in remaining mum on the matter, it implies that injustices could appear then, as well. Against this backdrop, the Torah conveys two messages. The first is directed at us: we are all responsible for the well-being of widows, orphans and those who are lonely. This is one of society’s enduring failures.

The second message is addressed to these vulnerable individuals left alone prematurely. God is saying to them: ‘You are not alone. Even if you feel that you have been left alone, and that you face an insensitive world, there is justice.’ If only the widows and orphans among us never had to cry out to the Heavens, because we, society around them, were always attentive to their plight.

Shabbat Shalom

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