The Torah has always shown great compassion and mercy for the weak and unfortunate: the orphan, the widow, and the stranger.
In the Torah section last week called Parsha Mishpatim, however, Gd takes up the plight of these hapless individuals by declaring that any cruelty shown to them incurs His wrath. In verse 22:22, the repetition of the verbs – “If you oppress, afflict him [beware,] for if he cries, cries out to Me, I will hear, hearken to his cry, ענה תענה …צעק אצעק …שמע אשמע” – underscore the severity of tormenting these downcast people.
Even more, the Midrash asserts the strange position that “A great affliction and a small affliction are all the same. ”
Rav Soloveitchik elaborates: “The degree of hurt is irrelevant; causing transient humiliation and causing severe physical pain are both subsumed under affliction. A word, a gesture, a facial expression by which the widow or the orphan feels hurt; in short, whatever causes an accelerated heartbeat – that comes under oppression… Neither the nature nor the magnitude of the oppression mitigates the punishment.” (Chumash Mesoras HaRav, Shemos pp.202-203)
The Talmud (Semachos 8:4) tells the story of R. Shimon b. Gamliel who was told by R. Yishmael that perhaps he was being punished because, “You were at the table or asleep and a woman came to inquire about her ritual purity, and the attendant told her: ‘He is asleep’; for the Torah said: ‘If you torment them (the widow and orphan) . . . ” and continued: ‘Then I shall kill you by the sword.’”
Again, in the Rav’s dramatization of the event: “What was wrong in R. Shimon’s conduct? He had come home exhausted after a full day’s work and lay down for a short rest. It had been a busy day: an entire load of communal responsibilities pressed heavily on his frail shoulders. Cruel Rome continued its ruthless policy of religious persecution and the economic ruin of the people… While he was dozing, a woman entered with an inquiry: is she ritually pure or impure? The attendant, knowing how fatigued R. Shimon was, advised her to wait until he awoke; he did not wish to disturb R. Shimon. How, then, the question arises, did R. Shimon afflict the woman?
The woman was a poor widow, and extremely sensitive. While waiting for R. Shimon, the thought may have gone through her head: had my rich neighbor come with a similar question, the attendant would have acted differently: he would have aroused R. Shimon. Because of my poverty and loneliness, she may have thought, he didn’t mind making me wait; she sighed and brushed away a tear. So, R. Shimon did afflict a widow, and thus violated a Biblical prohibition. Her tear was responsible for the tragic death of R. Shimon.” (See the Rav’s essay “The Community” in Tradition 17:2, pp.17-18)
The question, of course, is why should the penalty of aggrieving the orphan, widow and stranger be so harsh and exacting? To this, the Rav offers this fundamental insight whose application goes well beyond the specific command against afflicting these individuals. Here are the Rav’s own words:
“Each individual possesses something unique, rare, which is unknown to others; each individual has a unique message to communicate, a special color to add to the communal spectrum. Hence, when a lonely man joins the community, he adds a new dimension to community awareness. He contributes something which no one else could have contributed. He enriches the community existentially; he is irreplaceable. Judaism has always looked upon the individual as if he were a little world (microcosm); with the death of the individual, this little world comes to an end.”
In the Rav’s view, this existential worth of the individual is rooted in the religious belief that man as a natural being exists once in an eternity, that the very singleness of man makes him indispensable and hence infinitely precious.
When I recognize this truth, my perception of the “thou” goes far beyond the physical. It is more than that: it is an act of identifying him existentially, of affirming his singular role as a person who has a job to do and that only he can do properly.
If so, what must inexorably follow from this belief is this: “To hurt a person means to tell him that he is expendable, that there is no need for him. The Halacha equated the act of publicly embarrassing a person with murder. Why? Because humiliation is tantamount to destroying an existential community and driving the individual into solitude. It is not enough for the charitable person to extend help to the needy. He must do more than that: he must try to restore to the dependent person a sense of dignity and worth. That is why Jews have developed special sensitivity regarding orphans and widows since these persons are extremely sensitive and lose their self-confidence at the slightest provocation. [Therefore] The Bible warned us against afflicting an orphan or a widow.” (Ibid, p.16)
In other words, for the Rav, the Torah’s admonition against afflicting those less fortunate extends to treating anyone with disdain and dismissive contempt.
To act as if you have no use for someone, to be apathetic to their struggles, to ignore their distress is to be guilty of “oppressing the widow.” In fact, Ibn Ezra comments on the transition in verse 22:21 from the plural to the singular and back by asserting that not only the oppressor but the passive observer as well will be considered equally culpable of the same transgression if upon witnessing the degradation – the shaming – of another human being, he chooses to remain silent. “There are no other instances in the Torah where the onlooker receives the same punishment as the instigator.”
When we take a step back and contemplate the content of our culture, it certainly appears that our world is increasingly becoming a place where all too many are just out for themselves, that the “other” is devalued as an “it” rather than a “thou”, exploited – consciously or otherwise, it matters little – for the selfish ambitions and pleasures of the urbane human predator.
To refuse to grant to any person the dignity he deserves as a human being created in the image of G-d is to perpetrate an unforgivable crime upon the self-esteem and innate respectability of that person not to mention the sacrilegious rejection of Gd’s purpose in placing him in this world in the first place.
The Jew is uniquely chosen to fight the battles for the weak and unfortunate. We were strangers in Egypt and G-d brought us out and said to never forget the experience.
It is the Jew that is in the forefront of Civil Rights, even if it goes against our interest.
Henry Fonda had the words in the famous movie the Grapes of Wrath, but they are taken from the bible as if G-d had said them:
“Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.” I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look—wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.