04 Feb Rabbi Hillel Skolnik’s Torah Spark for Parashat Mishpatim 5776
Helping Those Who Need Help; Not Only When They Ask For It
One could easily be overwhelmed by the abundance of laws in Parashat Mishpatim, though certainly not surprised, since Mishpatim does mean “laws.” Up until this point in the Torah, the vast majority of the text has been narrative, so the focus on laws this week provides a serious shift in tone. Given that it would be understandable to overlook any number of the important commandments mentioned in this parasha, especially the ones which are retaught, sometimes with variation, in other places in the Torah. But one which we must not overlook, and the Torah returns to the concept time and again in order to keep us from ignoring this responsibility, can be found in Chapter 22, verses 21-23:
(21) You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan. (22) If “im” you do mistreat them, if/when “ki” they cry out to Me, I will heed their outcry, (23) and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
In analyzing these verses, Nehama Leibowitz calls our attention to the unusual consecutive use of the Hebrew words “im” and “ki” in verse 22, which usually mean “if” and “if/when/because” respectively. The Ramban (Nachmanides) actually offers two suggestions how to understand this. At first he reads the phrase as if the two words together imply the condition which will result in the apodosis (the if…then conclusion), as if to say that God’s anger will blaze forth only if the mistreated widow and orphan cry out for help. But that explanation leaves us wondering if Ramban believes that God would ignore the suffering of those who do not, or cannot, cry out. This was apparently not his intent, as his commentary continues, in Leibowitz’s words: “It is the victim’s plight, the fact of his suffering, rather than his actual cry, that calls forth Divine help” (Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, Volume 2, page 393). In this way God is always fighting on their behalf, protecting them whenever an offense occurs.
The question that we should be asking ourselves is what model we will choose to uphold our responsibility to protect the orphan, widow and any others who need our protection and assistance. Will we live according to Ramban’s first explanation and only come to their aid when there is a cry for help? Or will we be among those for whom the suffering itself is enough to draw us in? Better yet, we could take action to prevent suffering in the first place, as exemplified by Shmuel’s father who, in Talmud Brachot (18b), was tasked with protecting the funds of some local orphans. He put the orphans’ money in the middle of a stack of funds he hid under the pole of the millstone; the money on the top and bottom belonged to him and his family. Why keep that of the orphans in the middle? If robbers came to steal the money, he explained, they would steal the money at the top; if the ground or water caused damage, it would be to the money on the bottom. In either case, the orphan’s money would be protected. We can all do a better job of following Shmuel’s father’s example, making sure that not only do we help those in need when they call or when we learn of their suffering, but by preventing suffering from happening in the first place.