Covenant and Commitment: Who Is Responsible for the Vulnerable Among Us?

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1−24:18

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD

In Parashat Mishpatim , God continues to speak to the Israelite people, expanding on and extending the "general principles of the covenant" set forth in Parashat Yitro. In The Torah: A Women's Commentary, Elaine Goodfriend notes that this parashah presents a collection of case rulings and rules that can be divided into two groups: "The rules in the first group (21:2–22:16) are formulated mainly as case laws . . . the second group (22:17–23:19) . . . are phrased as unconditional imperatives, similar to the language of the Decalogue" (ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi [New York: URJ Press, 2008], p. 427). Let us focus on one "unconditional imperative" and explore its meaning for us as contemporary Jews: "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, 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" (Exodus 22:21–23).

Like the majority of the rules in the Torah, this statement is grammatically addressed to a masculine "you." Goodfriend explains that the "gender accurate" translation used in The Torah: A Women's Commentary (as well as in W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005]) presumes that biblical Hebrew "leaves the social gender unspecified when it refers to a nonspecific category of persons (‘you who . . .' or 'anyone who . . .'). Readers or listeners then determine the intended social gender from the topic under discussion, or from other clues in the context" ( The Torah: A Women's Commentary, p. 430). In our case, "the addressees are those with the authority and power to carry out this precept, namely, certain male leaders," which explains the reference to "your own wives" in verse 23 (ibid., p. 438).

How do we, as modern readers, understand this "unconditional imperative"? Let us take a closer look at the challenges presented in the text. "You [communal leaders] shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan" (Exodus 22:21). Who are widows and orphans in the biblical context? Widows are married women whose husbands have died and are therefore left without support or "once married women who no longer had any means of financial support" ( Encyclopaedia Judaica , vol. 16 [Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1976], p. 488). In The Torah: A Women's Commentary , Lillian Klein Abensohn writes, "The almanah (widow) functions in an ill-defined but usually perilous role, for women are primarily defined by their relationships to men in positions of power, first as daughters and then as wives. . . . Although an almanah may be independent of male domination, she would probably have difficulty functioning as an autonomous individual in ancient Israel's kinship-based, agricultural society" (p. 1,108). Tamar, Ruth, Orpah, and Naomi are perhaps the most well-known widows in the Bible. Boaz tells Ruth that he has instructed his young men not to harass her, reflecting his sense of her vulnerability (Ruth 2:9). However, any woman who is unmarried, abandoned, or divorced is, like a widow, without protection and is particularly vulnerable in any patriarchal society. While Miriam seems to be a woman on her own, the Rabbis of the midrash assign her a husband, Caleb ( Sh'mot Rabbah 1:17). The message of the biblical text, perpetuated by the Rabbis, is clear: women without men are vulnerable and need legal protection. Widows are one example of an entire class of at-risk individuals.

And who are orphans? Throughout history, the term "orphan," yatom , has referred primarily to a fatherless child. In a world where men are seen as the sole providers for their wives and children, a fatherless child is a child at particular risk. Encyclopaedia Judaica notes that "the Bible is particularly concerned with the helplessness of the orphan," while acknowledging that the meaning of yatom may vary depending on the context in which it is used. It notes that Psalms includes references to God as helper or father of the fatherless (Psalms 10:14 and 68:6); Deuteronomy includes several examples (Deuteronomy 16:11, 14; 24:19–21; 26:12–13) of social legislation to care for the orphan ( EJ , vol. 12, p. 1,478).

Let us consider the continuation of our text: "If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me" (Exodus 22:22). In the twelfth century, Maimonides, citing this text, wrote, "A man ought to be especially heedful of his behavior toward widows and orphans, for their souls are exceedingly depressed and their spirits low." He continues, "How are we to conduct ourselves with them? One may not speak to them otherwise than tenderly. One must show them unvarying courtesy; not hurt them physically with hard toil, nor wound their feelings with hard speech. One must take greater care of their property than of one's own. Whoever irritates them, provokes them to anger, pains them, tyrannizes over them, or causes them loss of money is guilty of a transgression, and all the more so if one beats them or curses them" (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Dei-ot 6:10).

The Torah and later Jewish tradition consider this directive not to mistreat the widow and the orphan an "unconditional imperative," a clear behavioral directive. But it is not directed only toward "communal leaders." As those who live in a participatory democracy, we know that it is up to us to support our leaders, locally, regionally, and nationally, and enable them to care for those in need. To paraphrase a popular refrain, we must be the leaders we have been waiting for.

Who in our society today is in a similar position to the widows and orphans we read about in our parashah ? While women and children continue to be vulnerable in our world, there are others who also need our care. In our own communities, a survivor of an unwanted divorce, an individual whose partner has succumbed to AIDS or cancer, a young person whose closest friend has died in an automobile accident—all these are today's biblical "widows." Today's orphans are those whose parents are unable to fulfill their responsibilities to their children because of addiction, illness, or the ravages of poverty. Our tradition demands our response; if we cannot hear the cries of those in need, we will become victims of our own self-involvement, and we will ultimately fail those closest to us. In Exodus 22:23 we read, ". . . your own wives will become widows and your children orphans." Let us hear the ancient words and respond, opening both the doors of our synagogues and the doors of our hearts to the widows and orphans among us.

(My thanks for their generous guidance to Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, editor, and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, associate editor, The Torah: A Women's Commentary. )

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as Rabbinic Director of Congregational Networks – East for the Union for Reform Judaism.

Verses Designed to Shake Us Up

Daver Acher By: Charles A. Kroloff

As Rabbi Elwell teaches, many of the commandments in our parashah are presented as unconditional imperatives. We are expected to treat the stranger justly even if we don't like the way a stranger looks. We are obligated to lighten the load of our enemy's mule even if we don't like our enemy.

The midrash helps us see this from a different perspective. Rabbi Alexandri, a third-century scholar, tells the story of two mule drivers who are proceeding down the same road. They share one thing in common—they can't stand each other. The mule of one of them collapses under the load. The other, who dislikes the first intensely, continues on ahead. Then he thinks to himself, "It is written in Torah, ‘If you see the mule of one who hates you overburdened, you must stop and ease the burden' (Exodus 23:5)." So he turns around and helps carry the load of the fallen mule. The driver being helped now has these thoughts: "My companion is really a good fellow after all, and I never knew it." They proceed to the closest inn, where they drink a toast and remain friends for life ( Midrash Tanchuma) .

This wonderful midrash teaches us that being kind and compassionate does not always come naturally. Sometimes our inclination is to do the opposite of the commandment. That's probably why the V'ahavta prayer reminds us to keep passages of the Torah in our minds "when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up." They are intended to wake us up and shake us out of our lethargy—all of us.

When you walk by the way or when you wake up in the morning, what commandments do you try to keep close to your heart and mind? Has any commandment shaken you up lately? Do commandments have the power to change the way we treat others? When is the last time that thinking or speaking about a mitzvah had the effect of actually changing your behavior, as it did for the mule driver?

Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff,a vice president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, is rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El, Westfield, New Jersey, and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Reference Materials

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 566-592; Revised Edition, pp. 511–538
Haftarah, Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25–26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 714-716; Revised Edition, pp. 539–541

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