It is not easy to lead an ethical life. There are so many choices to be made each day, and, as detailed in this week’s Torah portion, so many guidelines and rules to be considered. Why bother? Who cares? Does it really matter how I act?
As an ethical system, Jewish life relies on the belief that small, everyday acts have meaning beyond their immediate context. Something is at stake in every interaction that matters not just to the people involved but to the cosmos and to God. In parshah Mishpatim, this belief is brought home in the way the Torah talks about the weakest members of ancient society: the widow, the orphan and the poor.
In ancient times, a woman whose husband had died had little security or status. Cut off from both her family of origin and her husband’s family, she often found herself alone. In a society in which people relied on clan and family for protection and sustenance, the orphan was in a difficult position. There was no one to give a helping hand, and no one to object to mistreatment. And in ancient societies where wealth and power were tied together, the needs and welfare of the poor were often ignored. They had little chance to affect the course of events.
We know that the Torah repeats again and again the injunction not to mistreat the widow, the orphan or the poor, but in this week’s Torah portion, we find out why we should not do so.
“You 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)
On one level, this is a version of the old saying, what goes around comes around. “Your own family could be in the position of widows and orphans, so be careful how you treat them.” But on a deeper level, the Torah is teaching that God listens carefully for the cries of the weak and responds to those cries immediately. God is constantly — invisibly — standing guard over them, policing the interactions they have with those more powerful, ready to intervene if necessary.
“If you take your [poor] neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.” (Exodus 22:25-26)
God is compassionate toward the poor and hears their cries as well. Note that in this case, the poor person does not have the money to redeem his clothing; legally, the person who loaned him the money would have the right to keep it.
But even in this case in which the law seems to be against the poor person, God’s compassion tips the scale of justice to his side. We are asked to be compassionate to the poor even to the point of going above and beyond the requirements of the law.
Unfortunately, our society is not so different than the ancient societies that the Torah imagines. We, too, face difficult choices in our treatment of those less powerful than ourselves. We, too, need the message: God listens to their cries. We must listen as well.