This year, I have the pleasure of studying the Book of Exodus together with the lay-led Hebrew Bible study group at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I serve as senior rabbi. Thisd’var Torah draws on comments and realizations from members of the study group, including Evelyn, Joe, and Theresa.
Several years ago, Temple Beth Or took a winter vacation trip to Guatemala to volunteer at an orphanage and support a microbusiness in an impoverished village. The raw conditions Guatemalans face and the abject, pervasive poverty was harder to digest than the central-American food was on our privileged stomachs. The orphanage housed infants and young children with disabilities, many of whom had been rejected not only by their birth parents, but also by other orphanages unable to handle their special needs. There were forty children in all, the majority under the age of three.
It took every bit of the stamina, attention, and gumption our twenty volunteers could muster to give the half-dozen workers, who usually run the home, time off for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. One volunteer spent an entire day changing diapers; another spent a day hanging clothes out to dry on a revolving clothesline that stretched the length of a basketball court. A young volunteer and her mother spent hours comforting a colicky baby, only to be gently scolded by the orphanage workers who reminded them that, with forty babies to care for, they could not afford to have one baby spoiled with so much individual attention.
The trip cast fresh meaning on this week’s Torah portion and its admonition: “You [communal leaders] shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me. . .” (Exodus 22:21–22). Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary explains: “God watches out for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger because they have no property of their own and there is no one to look after them.”1 This notion of welfare being directly linked to the ability to possess property, and the protection of one’s own as well as others’ property, is central in Parashat Mishpatim’s presentation of laws that build a community based on ability and obligation. In biblical society, the entire community bore the responsibility for the welfare of the widow and orphan, those to whom the society assigned no property.
In Temple Beth Or’s Torah study group, the portion’s postulate of responsibility for the needs of the entire community was central to the discussion of Mishpatim. The community is built on the interlocking reliance of the support of all its members. Theresa commented that this precept from Torah brought a civilizing influence in biblical times and undergirds the U.S. principles of basic rights for all persons. Restitution for the one who is wronged, and basic food and shelter for the poor, are humanizing principals. Joe pointed out that many of the laws in this portion deal with proportionality: an injured person is due payment equal to the value of the loss the injury causes (see “An Eye for an Eye,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition2). Everyone in society, including those without means—the widow and orphan—is due a minimum quality of life, in proportion to those around them.
The verse following the discussion of the orphan and widow reiterates the obligation to the needy even further: “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them” (Exodus 22:24). Sh’mot Rabbahexplains the unusual phrase: “Among human beings, the rich and powerful are embarrassed by their poor relatives. God is not embarrassed to call the poor ‘My people.”3 American culture heaps shame upon the poor, and Jewish American culture is not immune from this sin. In fact, many poor Jews assume they are not welcome in synagogues because they are unable to pay their “fair share” of dues. Though most congregations work hard to educate the Jewish community that financial barriers will not disqualify anyone from membership, just one bad experience in a congregation by a person in need can cut off a generation from their heritage. In these times especially, congregations need to assure that they project the Torah value that all people are worthy, every individual a member of God’s people.
Nonetheless, in these difficult economic times, it is impossible for one person or even an entire community to assist all of those in need. When my congregation took the trip to Guatemala, some questioned the money and effort spent so far away, with so many needs unmet at home. Here too, the parashah instructs us to prioritize. Midrash Tanchuma understands the second phrase of Exodus 22:24, “the poor among you,” as instructing: “The poor among your relatives take precedence over other poor; the poor of your town over the poor of other towns.”4 Though at first glance this seems to contradict the idea that all God’s people have equal value, the commentary in Etz Hayim says: “By practicing just treatment of those closest to us (which may be harder than extending fair treatment to those far off), we form a habit that we can then extend to strangers.”5 This reminds Evelyn from our Torah study group of the Pirke Avot 2:16 teaching: “It is not up to you to finish the work, yet you are not free to avoid it.”6 The teaching emphasizes that the obligation is not about changing the world as much as it is about attuning the self to the needs of the world. Each person has an obligation to contribute to those in need, both in his or her own community and beyond.
It has been said that “charity begins at home,” but it doesn’t end there. In performing acts of loving-kindness among our inner circles, we build an outlook and perspective that will be reflected in every individual action and interaction in the world.
1. David L. Lieber, sr. ed., Chaim Potok, ed. of the p’shat commentary, (based on the JPS Torah Commentary by Nahum M. Sarna), Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary(New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), p. 469
2. W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition (New York: URJ Press, 2005), pp. 528–529
3. Exodus Rabbah 31:5 cited in Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, p. 469
4. Midrash Tanchuma; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dei-ah 251:3, cited in Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, p. 469
6. Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitsky, ed. and trans, Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics (New York: UAHC Press, 1993), p. 30
Rabbi Lucy H. F. Dinner is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rabbi Dinner is studying the Book of Exodus with her congregation’s lay-led, Hebrew Bible Study Group, which has been studying together for over twenty years.