Rabbi Dr. Michael Bernstein
Taunting As a Capital Offense
Taunting is always forbidden, but if the victim is a widow or an orphan, it can have terrible consequences (22:21-3). “Do not taunt any widow or orphan. If you will indeed taunt him, then should he cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry. And My anger will flare, and I will kill you by the sword; your wives will be widows, your children orphans.”
There are some intriguing textual and grammatical anomalies in the verse. In the Torah, the order of their mention is ordinarily “orphans and widows,” yet here it is “widows and orphans.” Also, when speaking about “orphans and widows” or “orphans or widows,” the Torah ordinarily refers to “them” in the third person plural. Here, the verse concludes, “if you will indeed taunt him, then should he cry out to Me,” referring to “him,” the third person singular. Even more puzzling, when speaking about the retribution, “I will kill you by the sword,” here the Torah uses the plural form of the pronoun even though it has spoken until now to a lone tormentor. Finally, we cannot help but wonder why taunting, albeit an unpleasant act, elicits such harsh consequences.
It may be that the Torah reverses the regular order and mentions the orphan second in order to show that the focus of the severe retribution of the next verse is more related to the case of the orphan than the widow. Although the pain and suffering taunts inflict on a widow are great, they do not compare to the irreparable harm they inflict on an orphan. Modern psychology finds, not unexpectedly, that the basic structure of our personalities, emotional predispositions and our attitudes to our surroundings are determined in childhood. It follows that the taunt inflicted on an orphan is singularly injurious.
By permanently skewing the orphan’s perceptions and causing him to become wary and suspicious, the tormentor impedes the ability of the orphan to form a meaningful and trusting relationship with God. In essence, then, he is depriving the orphan of this most important aspect of life, and the Torah predicts that the tormentor will pay for this heinous crime with his own life. Although this may hold true with a widow to a lesser extent, the Torah juxtaposes the consequences to the orphan and expresses them in the singular, to emphasize that the more severe damage and hence the harsher divine consequences are with the orphan.
Although the Torah uses the singular in referring to the tormentor of the orphan, the Torah returns to the plural in the description of the punishment. This is a common grammatical device employed by the Torah to indicate that the community bears collective responsibility for certain types of egregious crimes committed by and against individuals, that silence and inaction in the presence of injustice and cruelty are also crimes. We must proactively assure the welfare of widows and orphans.
The Fourth Festival
The Torah obliges us to celebrate three festivals each year (23:14) in commemoration of historical events during the Exodus and its aftermath. Passover commemorates the Exodus itself, Shavuos the giving of the Torah and Sukkos the providential existence in the desert. These occasions are celebrated with feasting and joy, and labor is forbidden.
Is there a possibility for a fourth?
Megillas Esther records (9:22) that Mordechai sought to designate the days of Purim as “days of feasting, joy and festivity.” The Talmud states (Megillah 5b) that the Jewish people accepted the requirements of feasting and joy but they did not accept the obligation to treat the day celebrating their salvation as a festival (yom tov).
Was there a deeper significance to Mordechai’s request?
Mordechai had wanted to establish Purim as an added festival commemorating the historical events that had just taken place in Shushan. Why did he think he could institute a new festival with the stature of a Passover or a Sukkos?
In Netzach Yisrael, the Maharal states that the prohibition against forbidden labors on the festivals, allowing only those necessary for the celebration of the day, foreshadows and mirrors the Messianic era. At that time, the awareness and knowledge of God will be so great and clear that people will not engage in activities extraneous to furthering their relationship with God.
In light of this thought, perhaps we can understand Mordechai’s rationale in proposing that Purim be instituted as a fourth festival. Purim represented the defeat of Amalek, the implacable enemy of God and the Jewish people. Furthermore, the nation had become reinvigorated in their commitment to keep the Torah (kimu vekiblu). It is possible that Mordechai expected that the deliverance of the Jewish people would now lead speedily to the completed building of the Second Temple, whose construction had been abruptly halted several years earlier. Most importantly, it would signal the advent of the Messiah. As a harbinger of the Messianic era (ikvesa d’Meshicha), Purim would join the other festivals as days on which forbidden labors are proscribed, days restricted to festivity and joy, days that celebrate the pivotal historic moments of God’s providence for the Jewish people.
The Havdalah ritual, which distinguishes the Sabbath from the weekday, the holy from the mundane, features a quote from Megillas Esther as part of its liturgy. “To the Jews there was light and joy, gladness and glory. So should there be for us.” In this statement, we express our hope and expectation that the complete redemption Mordechai envisioned awaits us as we return to the toils of our workweek.