This week’s parsha, Mishpatim, relays G-d’s instructions on how we should behave toward one another. In consecutive verses, chapter 22 requires Jews to acknowledge the dignity of strangers (verse 20) and of widows and orphans (verses 21-23). In the case of the former, the Torah succinctly and in straightforward terms admonishes not to “wrong or exploit” them, for “you” lived as “strangers in Egypt.” In the case of the latter, the Torah goes into greater detail.
The text regarding widows and orphans uses different language in setting forth the requirement for proper treatment. In verse 21, G-d commands, “you shall not afflict ...” In addition, unlike the generic “strangers” in verse 20, verse 21 specifies “any widow and orphan.” Next, in contrast to the case of strangers, the Torah details the harsh punishment for abusers of widows and orphans. G-d promises that, “if you afflict him, if he will cry out, I will surely hear his cry. I will kill you with the sword” so that “your wives will become widows and your children orphans” (verses 22-23).
These differences teach us important lessons in how we should show respect to those at the margins of society. In the Book of Leviticus (Parshat Kedoshim), it states that we may not wrong or exploit anyone and that G-d will punish the miscreant. Therefore, we may not take advantage of anyone’s ignorance, not just that of a foreigner. Rashi explains, however, that verse 20 here comes to tell us that we must not abuse the stranger by throwing his background in his face. For if we inveigh against him, the stranger will shame us with our own slave ancestors. The stranger’s particular exposure stems from his foreign background, not anything inherent in the person. We show respect by keeping his forebears out of our dealings.
In practice, even prominent foreigners face harassment. Two of the great sages of the Second Temple era, Shmaya and Avtalyon, converted to Judaism before rising to the pinnacle of society (Yoma 71b). The Talmud there records that one Yom Kippur, the two greeted the High Priest on his way out of the Temple after services. He then mocked them about their ancestry. In return, they compared him unfavorably with Aaron, the first High Priest.
However, verses 21-23 cover the more vulnerable — those who, emotionally or economically, are in need of special protection. Rashi explains that the word “every” in verse 21 means to include all the defenseless. Widows and orphans happen to constitute the predominant group whom society tends to exploit. Nachmanides comments that “every” includes even the rich, whom we might think can take care of themselves. Rather, Nachmanides states, widows and orphans, bereft and lonely, suffer from psychological vulnerability. Nachmanides concludes we must take care not to hurt those whose suffering results from emotional vulnerability, as well as poverty.
The language “every widow and orphan” explains why the Torah forbids “afflicting” them, as opposed to “wronging or exploiting” the stranger. The Torah uses the word “afflict” when discussing the prohibitions of Yom Kippur. Those “afflictions” involve depriving ourselves of food and water and three other pleasures. Here, the Torah forbids us to deprive those suffering physically and emotionally of what they need to function in society.
The Torah commands us not to harm the stranger with our actions. More than that, the Torah commands us not to harm “widows and orphans” — a pairing emblematic of the vulnerable members of society, which could be extended to include the disability community — through inaction or neglect. Indeed, Ibn Ezra explains why the Torah changes from plural to singular “you” in verse 22. Verse 21 discusses those actively hurting widows and orphans; verse 22 reveals that G-d will punish an individual who witnesses abuse but does nothing about it — the passive accomplice. G-d shows such consideration for the vulnerable that He hears their cry of the suffering, even without an accompanying word (Nachmanides, verse 22).
During Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, and beyond, we as a community should take heed.
Joshua Z. Rokach
Joshua Zev Rokach is gabbai of the Nusach Sefard minyan at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah (YISE) in Kemp Mill, Maryland. It meets for all minyanim on Shabbat and Yom Tov in the upstairs small beit midrash in the new wing at YISE.