God leaves most of the judicial work in these chapters to the human courts He has empowered. But in chapter 22, God suddenly takes a very personal stake in matters. It’s not where you might expect it, regarding religious laws of witchcraft and idol worship. Only in the verses that immediately follow these laws does God get involved, listening to the voice of the widow, the orphan, and the impoverished.
God hearing the cries of the oppressed echoes the beginning of the Jewish people’s redemption, when what opened God’s eyes and ears was people’s ability to see and identify with the suffering of others.
In this chapter, we learn that this was not only the beginning of redemption, is it also the primary educational message of our experience in Egypt. “Do not belittle or oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In a long list of rational commandments, this is the first time the Torah explicitly emphasizes its rationale. We can care for the stranger because we were the stranger, and because the Torah commands us to reinforce that experience as an element of our identity on a twice-daily basis, and with special intensity on the night of the seder. (This is exquisitely developed by my dear friend Rabbi Steven Exler’s Shabbat HaGadol discourse, which inspired this piece. Highly recommended- it’s well worth the investment).
This is the first step, but it cannot stop there. We identify with the stranger, but what of the other vulnerable groups in society, the orphan, the widow, the poor? How can we relate to them not from a place of pity, or guilt, but rather from a place of deep identification?
Here God needs to step in to show us the way. Identification often begins from a deep-seated fear that “there but for the grace of God go I.” The Torah encourages this fear most brutally, in the form of a threat. “And your wives will be widows and your children orphans.”
But from fear we need to strive for positive identification. The Torah bids us not to act as a “loaner”, as an objective outsider, but to relate to the poor as an insider, as God does- “if you lend my nation money.” The methodology to develop this awareness is the same as that which defines our seder, with questions. “What will he sleep in?” To identify is to ask ourselves the questions that trouble the other. As God asks, so must we ask. As God hears, so must we hear. God takes it personally, and so should we.
This is my own little insight about the 929 chapter of the day, in 300 words or so. Chapter 22 was Monday. I’d love to hear your comments and start a conversation
What’s 929? A near-impossible challenge of consistency. A song of Jewish unity. A beautiful project worth checking out. Learn more at 929.org.il