Protecting the widow, orphan and stranger -Parshat Mishpatim
Exodus 21:1 -24:18
This week’s portion, Mishpatim, contains a further revelation of the legal code that the Israelites are yet to adhere to. A collection of laws and statutes that affect everyday interactions with their fellow Israelite and other tribes are laid out in this week’s portion. Everything is on the table from what happens in the case of kidnapping to killing. The Torah takes a look at the permitted ways to deal with slavery and the protections of slaves. There are laws about property, and laws about how to treat the widow and the orphan.
This collection continues the revelation at Sinai and is considered classically as the extension of the Decalogue. God is giving to Moses the tools to organize Israelite society. God is giving Moses the resources to put into place the rules of law and justice and it will provide a strong foundation for the system of chieftains and leaders who serve as judges to keep peace among the people.
One strong measure of Israelite society was the protection of its weakest members. Widows and orphans hold a special place in Israelite society. This week’s portion states: “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.” (Ex. 22:21-22). God wants it made clear that those without protection in this society will be especially protected by the Divine Source of All. And several times in our portion –God makes it clear-that the powerless, whether a stranger in their midst, or a slave or someone who is poor must not be mistreated.
Ironically, these former slaves who were at the bottom of the social pyramid in Egyptian society need reminding. Was it only three months ago that they were the weakest and needed protection? They needed rescuing by God! Wouldn’t they automatically remember where they came from and their former station in life and then act accordingly?
Often in the world some of the cruelest tyrants have been those who were once oppressed themselves. To guard against this happening-Jewish tradition and the Torah and the Halachah, Jewish law emphasizes time and again that we have a social obligation and responsibility to protect those who are powerless in society and to provide for their needs. The subsequent Jewish teachings remind us to provide food, and shelter and to take on the communal responsibility for them through Tzedakah, charity and Gemilut Chassidim, acts of loving-kindness. You can’t legislate love but you can legislate actions that are required in a particular situation.
Our governmental leaders would do well to look and these admonitions. A measure of a society is how they treat the poorest, weakest and most oppressed among them. In our day and in the United States-poverty grows daily. The number of homeless and hungry on our streets rise. And certain politicians would destroy any social welfare net. And they have. But we must also be guided by these values expressed –since we knew what it was to be a stranger in a strange land, since we knew what it meant to be enslaved and powerless, since we knew what it was like to be the weakest—then we Jews have a special responsibility to champion those who don’t have.
It is no different today. Whether on the streets of Los Angeles or Port Au Prince, Haiti, we are called by our God to respond to those cries. Yes, God said: I will heed their cry- and we are God’s eyes and ears and hands to respond.
May we learn to respond quickly to the pain of others and lift up the weakest in our society so that they can learn and grow and emancipate themselves