Mishpatim (Rules), is a miscellaneous collection of laws relating to slavery, homicide, theft, agriculture and many other matters. As interesting as these specific regulations are, they have none of the energy and drama of the Ten Commandments, which we read last week. But the Torah understands that a well-ordered society needs more than majestic ideals; it needs specific rules to live by.
Suddenly, amid this long catalog of laws, we hear God erupt in anger: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. No widow or orphan shall you abuse. If you indeed abuse them, when they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their outcry. And my wrath shall flare up and I will kill you by the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans” (22:20-23).
This amazing passage was composed in a patriarchal society — probably one at war and under great economic and political stress with extended families dissolving. Widows and orphans (meaning fatherless children) were very much at risk. The language used takes us back to the beginning of Exodus, where the Hebrew slaves are oppressed and call out to God.
Who is being addressed here? No doubt, the rulers, the judges, the rich (see, for example, Jeremiah 5:28, Isaiah 10:1-3). The people in power are supposed to perform justice. Even in a vulnerable and beleaguered society, there are no excuses for cruelty and insensitivity. There is a catharsis of anger in God’s outburst; God is sorely grieved.
As a recent widower myself, I am struck by how frequently the Hebrew Bible talks about widows — literally dozens of times. The book of Lamentations compares the destroyed city of Jerusalem to a widow, utterly devastated and entirely helpless (Lamentations 1:1). The biblical widow is the very model of someone who is cut off and abandoned, economically and socially.Fortunately, women today are no longer as vulnerable when their spouses die.
It is remarkable that many of the classic Jewish interpreters sense that God’s fury has a lot to do with the abusers’ indifference to the emotional needs of the bereaved. To Rambam (Maimonides), the very reason the Torah singles out orphans and widows is because they need special attention: “A person is obligated to show great care for orphans and widows because their spirits are very low, and their feelings are depressed… One should only speak to them gently and only treat them with honor” (Hilchot De’ot 6:10).
“With honor,” he says, because they have lost their social status and are no longer the wife or child of an esteemed member of the community. Today we would focus instead on the difficulty that the mourners face because they no longer know how to relate to others now that their orienting center is gone.
Ramban (Nachmanides) also makes clear that the widow needs something more than financial assistance: “Even a wealthy widow with possessions, for she cries easily, and her soul is lowly” (Mikraot Gedolot, Exodus 22:21).
To these commentators, the rabbinic notion of onaa (mistreatment) does not refer only to causing physical or financial distress; it extends to the widow’s need for support in her grief and confusion. She needs neighbors and friends who will be present with her in loving ways to steady her as she relearns her world. To care for her is to participate in some small way in God’s own compassion.
What the Torah this week is asking us is to stop operating as if life were permanent, and to confront our own fears of loneliness and abandonment — to open our hearts to the suffering of others, and to help them accommodate to the reality of loss. It is not an easy demand that the Torah is making of us, but I know from my own experience that those who can sit patiently and lovingly with the mourners are doing God’s work by helping them grieve themselves toward new life. JN
Rabbi David Klatzker is the transitional rabbi for Congregation Or Tzion.