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Mishpatim: YHVH, Protector of the Powerless

Kol almanah v’yatom lo t’anun. Im aneh ta’aneh oto ki im tza’ok yitz’ak eilai shamo’a esh’ma tza’akato.

You are not to mistreat any widow or orphan. Oh, if you mistreat, mistreat them, and they cry, cry out to Me, I will hearken, yes, hearken to their outcry. (Exodus 22:21-22)

In Biblical Hebrew, when an emphatic statement is made, there are no words such as “surely” or “really”, and certainly no boldface or italics or exclamation points available. Instead, the verb is repeated twice. In the verse above, we know that the Hebrew is being unusually forceful, because not one, but every verb in the verse is repeated twice. Most English translations do not reflect this feature of Biblical Hebrew and instead aim for a more literary English rendering. Unfortunately, the reader of those translations misses the thrust of the Hebrew. When we read the Hebrew, we need to imagine this verse as a bold headline, in giant letters, shouting at us from the page: “Pay Attention to This Instruction!”*

And what are we being asked to take special notice of? That YHVH hears the cry of the widow and orphan. YHVH hears the cry of the powerless, and will protect them.

This theme is emphatically repeated many times in the Torah:

If you take, take your neighbor’s garment as a security against a debt, you must return it before the sun sets. It is his only available covering – in what else shall he sleep? If that person cries out to Me, I will hearken, for I am compassionate. (Ex. 22:25-26)

If there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against them. Rather, open, open your hand; lend, lend what is sufficient to meet their need, their need…If you do not give and they cry out to YHVH, you will incur guilt. Give, give with a full heart in your giving, and YHVH will bless you in all your efforts. (Deut. 15:7-10)

In the patriarchal social structure of ancient Israel (which still exists today in many parts of the world) every person who belonged to a clan had a go’el – a redeemer, or protector, who was the leader of that clan or family. If someone fell into captivity, the go’el was responsible to redeem them from enslavement. If someone fell into poverty, the go’el was responsible for their sustenance. But there were some who had no go’el: the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. If misfortune befell them, they had no one to count on to bail them out or to rescue them. In fact, they had no legal recourse at all. They were truly the powerless in that society.

The Torah lays out a legal and communal imperative to transcend what it sees as an inherent flaw of that societal structure. The Torah seeks to make everyone, including those who have no protector, as fully meriting fair and equal protection under the law. This is a radical and unprecedented ideal that our Torah offered to the ancient world, and it should not be overlooked by the modern reader.

But how does a society enforce a new norm that falls outside of any existing precedent? We must remember that there is no apparent incentive for individuals to embrace this principle. The powerless by definition have nothing to offer in return for their protection. They don’t even have a protector who can exact revenge against your clan if you mistreat them. There is no obvious self-interest in caring for these unfortunates.

Therefore, Judaism makes an audacious claim, a claim that resonates in our moral codes to this day: YHVH, the Creator of the Universe and of all human beings, is the protector of the powerless. They are, as it were, in their Creator’s clan, even if they are unfortunate enough to have no human go’el. Furthermore, the Torah makes clear that we Jews were the test case to show the world that the Creator indeed sides with weak against those that would mistreat them. We were slaves in Egypt, and our situation was hopeless by any existing standard, for we had no redeemer. But God heard our cry and redeemed us from bondage:

Va’yomer YHVH: ra’oh ra’iti et oni ami asher b’Mitzrayim, v’et tza’a’katam shamati mipnei nogshav, ki yadati et mach’ovav.

And YHVH said: I have seen, yes, I have seen the mistreatment of My people in Mitzrayim, and I have heard their outcry on account of their oppressors; yes, I know their pain. (Exodus 3:7)

In order to enshrine this new imperative that asserts that it is our responsibility to protect the weak and powerless even if they are not our close kin, our tradition insists that the God we worship is the model that we must follow. Furthermore, if we do not embody this imperative, the Torah asserts that YHVH is watching, and as the go’el of the weak YHVH will bestow blessing upon us if we walk in God’s ways, but will exact retribution upon us if we do not. We are meant to behave the way our Creator behaves, and extend ourselves to those who cannot fend for themselves.

And if the promise of divine retribution and reward is not sufficient, the Torah employs another method of incentive to motivate us to treat as equals those who bring us no obvious benefit: again and again it calls to our empathy. Our Torah portion declares,

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 23:9)

And elsewhere in the Torah:

When you reap the harvest of your field and overlook a sheaf, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the orphan and the widow…When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger the orphan and the widow. Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. (Deut. 24:19-22)

Or:

When an indentured servant goes free after his six years of service, do not let him go empty-handed. Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat with which YHVH your God has blessed you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and that YHVH your God redeemed you. (Deut. 14:12-15)

Our prayer book declares: “Mah yafeh yerushateinu!” – “How beautiful is our heritage!” This phrase comes to my lips as I reflect on the world-changing message of our Torah, proclaimed as emphatically as Biblical Hebrew knows how, and kept alive through every generation since, so that it reaches our ears, our minds and our hearts: caring for your kin is a self-evident virtue. Looking out for your neighbor is common sense – you scratch their back, they will scratch yours. But our tradition insists that beyond these circles of obvious concern and self-interest, even the powerless merit our care and our energy, for they too are God’s children, and they, the same as any of us, deserve to be redeemed.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan

*See The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation by Everett Fox for his unusual rendering of the Biblical Hebrew that preserves the cadences of the Biblical Hebrew