54 Ways of Looking at Evil

18th Way: Cruelty Towards the Defenseless

Richard Borah

Parshas Mishpatim states (Shemot 22:20-13):

You shall not oppress any widow or orphan.

If you oppress him, [beware,] for if he cries out to Me, I will surely hear his cry.

My wrath will be kindled, and I will slay you with the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans.

The Torah gives special consideration and protection to widows and orphans, as stated in these pasukim. A number of questions can be asked about this special status:

1) What precisely is the way to fulfill the mitzvah of lo taanoon (“do not oppress”) - how does one violate this prohibition?

2) Why is a separate mitzvah needed to prohibit oppression of the widow and orphan when there is already a mitzvah of “v’ahavta rayecha kmoecha” (that you should love your fellow (Jew) as you do yourself)? Certainly, if one must love his fellow, he cannot oppress him!

3) Why does the Torah state the punishment for violating this prohibition as God “slaying you with the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans”? God does not use weapons such as swords and isn’t it obvious that the person’s death will leave his children as orphans and his wife as a widow? What does this add?

Maimonides states in the Mishnah Torah, Hilchos Dayot (Laws of Character Traits 6:10):

A person is obligated to show great care for orphans and widows because their spirits are very low and their feelings are depressed. This applies even if they are wealthy. We are commanded to [show this attention] even to a king's widow and his orphans as [implied by Exodus 22:21]: "Do not mistreat any widow or orphan." How should one deal with them? One should only speak to them gently and treat them only with honor. One should not cause pain to their persons with [overbearing] work or aggravate their feelings with harsh words and [one should] show more consideration for their financial interests than for one's own. Anyone who vexes or angers them, hurts their feelings, oppresses them, or causes them financial loss transgresses this prohibition. Surely this applies if one beats them or curses them.

For one’s fellow Jew, the obligation is not identical, as Maimonides states in Hilchot Dayot (Laws of Character Traits 6:3)

Each man is commanded to love each and every one of Israel as himself as [Leviticus 19:18] states: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Therefore, one should speak the praises of [others] and show concern for their money just as he is concerned with his own money and seeks his own honor.

A widow or orphan is treated with extreme sensitivity and not with the level of concern that one would expect from others for oneself. The guiding point of reference for how to treat a fellow Jew is how one expects himself to be treated. Every emotionally healthy person has a fairly clear sense of what is means for him to be treated with kindness and concern. All that is required for understanding how to treat a fellow Jew is for a person to reflect on one’s own innate standard of how he or she would expect to be treated and to apply that to the other people that he interacts with. Maimonides does give basic guidelines in this halacha quoted above, stating “Therefore, one should speak the praises of [others] and show concern for their money just as he is concerned with his own money and seeks his own honor.” In my opinion this is not exhaustive and the halacha refers to monetary and honor-related actions as they are ones often violated when people interact with each other.

Returning to the widows and orphans, a Jew who interacts with them is at much greater risk of causing them pain and anguish. It is extremely difficult for a person to be sensitive to feeling that he or she does not have. A person who has a healthy sense of security and a reasonably secure ego, is not bothered by what he considers minor slights or insensitivities in the way people talk or act with him. It is like a person who cannot feel the pressure of an extremely light object on his hand. It is as if it does not exist for him. So how is this person to muster the sensitivity in his interactions with the widow or orphan who does feel these minor slights as considerable pain and anguish due to what Maimonides described earlier in the Mishneh Torah as spirits are very low and their feelings are depressed?

I believe the answer to this question will answer two of the questions we asked earlier – why a separate commandment is given for the widows and orphans ; why such a dramatic description of the punishment (that God will slay the person with a sword and make his children orphans and his wife a widow). In order for the average person to achieve the level of sensitivity necessary not to oppress the very sensitive natures of the widow and the orphan, he must be highly motivated to concentrate on the situation of these unfortunate individuals. The Torah often motivates the person with fear. But stating such a severe punishment for a seemingly minor mistake, the person is made to understand that extreme caution must be taken with them in order to protect one’s own life. It reminds me of how a person would act in the presence of a king, where one minor insult could result in immediate death or imprisonment. This is the attitude that the description of God “slaying the person with a sword” brings to mind.

But perhaps a more subtle and effective method of aiding the person in keeping this law is the description that, “your wives will be widows and your children orphans”. This image, when reflected on by the potential oppressor, helps him put himself in the place of the widow or orphan and feel something of what they are feelings. Although the average person’s imagination cannot easily sense the pain of widows or orphans, the average person CAN imagine the pain of his own wife or children if they were in such a situation. This imagining allows for a heightened sensitivity in the person that is needed in order to properly fulfill this mitzvah.

I would like to conclude in posing the question, whether treating the widow and orphan with such “extra” sensitivity is an act of justice or an act of mercy. One might assess this to be a merciful act, since it goes beyond the standard manner of concern with which one treats his fellow and expects to be treated by others. But perhaps the special treatment afforded the widow and orphan is not mercy, but simply justice. For these individuals, the extreme level of sensitivity is what they require to function properly. Their situation is like a baby who can only eat soft food. Is it mercy for the parent to give the baby soft food because the parent can eat hard food? No. It is simple justice. So too, the widow and orphan because of their depressed and insecure state, require the “soft food” of extreme kindness to survive and thrive.