Israel must work to protect orphans, widows, prevent injustice - opinion

There are instances when the Torah punishes a person who transgresses. But, there’s almost no reference to a specific mitzvah in which God will personally deal with sinners.

 YEHUDAH, A former MK, and Hadass pose for a photo in the Knesset. (photo credit: Courtesy)
YEHUDAH, A former MK, and Hadass pose for a photo in the Knesset.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we find a rare verse. Alongside the prohibition not to oppress a widow or an orphan, there’s also a clear threat directed toward those who violate it: “I will kill you with the sword and your wives will be widows and your children orphans.” (Exodus 22:23)

“I will kill you with the sword and your wives will be widows and your children orphans.”

Exodus 22:23

There are instances when the Torah punishes a person who transgresses. There are even entire passages regarding the curses applied to the people of Israel when they do not conduct themselves properly. But, there’s almost no reference to a specific mitzvah in which God will personally deal with sinners.

The cries of the widow and the orphan cannot be ignored

The uniqueness of this language clearly indicates the uniqueness of the widow and orphan’s situation. They require a higher level of protection.

In these verses, the verbs “oppress” and “shout” appear three times each. It’s hard not to hear and feel the intensity of the pain and identify with the “hearing.” No one experiences suffering without shouting (even if in silence). God hears their scream.

Society cannot ignore the suffering

Maimonides (Rambam) in his Mishna Torah explains what to oppress means:

The Rambam (credit: Wikimedia Commons)The Rambam (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“One should only speak to them gently and treat them only with honor. One should not cause pain to their persons with [overbearing] work or aggravate their feelings with harsh words and [one should] show more consideration for their financial interests than for one’s own.”

The transition from prohibition to obligation

Although the Torah uses negative language, “Do not oppress,” Rambam repeatedly emphasizes the positive obligation. Additional respect must be given to widows and orphans. It must be stronger and more exaggerated. Anything short of going over and beyond with regard to the widow and her orphan is a transgression, even for those who show respect.

“One should speak with them with very soft and pleasant words; do business with them in the best possible manner; treat them in the nicest way and to do so to the extreme. One who is not careful to act in this manner has transgressed this prohibition. The Almighty already explained and guaranteed the punishment for one who transgresses this prohibition, in His statement: “I will display My anger and kill you.”

Until when is someone called an orphan? Until he is an adult and no longer relies on others to take care of him. Until he can take care of his own needs like all other adults.”

From the Rambam’s words, three conclusions emerge. Firstly, the crisis experienced by the widow and the orphan is not necessarily an economic crisis. It’s a mental and social reality, in which the widow and the orphan experience the loss of their protector. This loss shakes their very being.

Secondly, this new reality does not spare the poor or the rich. Young widows and orphans need unique treatment regardless of their status.

Thirdly, according to Rambam, the Torah specifically refers to the young widow and her small orphans.

The destruction of the house

The mother and father are like one person and like pillars holding up and supporting the home. When one parent passes away, a sense of completeness disappears, there is no longer both a father and mother to raise the young children and the effects can be devastating. The family falls apart, emotionally and financially.

Therefore, we are obligated to treat the young widow and her orphans with excessive positivity. “Do not oppress” means that one should not regard a young widow and her orphans as if they have a lowly status. A young widow of a king with orphans and a young poor man’s widow with orphans are on the same level and the surrounding community must care for them in such a way that they do not feel poor.

This fall is represented by the words “widow” and “orphan.”

The late Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch comments:

“Almana (widow) is derived from the root alam, one who does not speak. Yatom (orphan) is derived from the root “ytam,” which is close to the word, used for a person with an amputated hand and tree branches that have been prematurely pruned. With the death of her husband, the widow loses her voice; she no longer has anyone to speak for her. With the death of his father, the orphan is left helpless; he no longer has anyone to lean on or guide him.”

A father and a mother, together, are a source of strength for their children. The mutual respect that a husband and wife feel for one another permeates the home and empowers the children. When one spouse dies, his young children lose the strength gained from the relationship he modeled with his wife.

The community surrounding the family can help. By showering the surviving parent with respect, they can elevate and strengthen her/his position in the household.

A new unit

When one spouse/parent passes away, the new widow and her orphan become viewed as one unit. This can be seen in the language of the Torah.

“You shall not oppress any widow or orphan... If you oppress him.” By using the singular “him,” the Torah implies that the widow and the orphan are one inseparable family unit.

That unit experiences a feeling of separation from the community because of their new status. According to the Rambam, it’s prohibited to discriminate between one widow and another widow and between one orphan and another. Rather, they should all receive special treatment.

Furthermore, the Torah indicates that a widow and her orphans represent a family that has been destroyed beyond repair – because there is no replacement for the father or the mother figure, and the family will never return to its original state.

The Torah understands and highlights this sad reality. The breakdown of the home affects all members of the household individually, as a group and within society. It’s an ever present force. Therefore, it’s our duty as a society to give them the dignity of a complete family, to fill their home with respect and to amplify our good deeds towards them.

From morality to social policy

Rabbi Hirsch, in his interpretation of the verses, explains the tension between the personal and public dimensions. His words are prophetic for Israel, established sixty years after his departure.

“...For this reason, the reference in the previous verse comes in the singular, to warn the Jewish “state” against this practice... In social relations and in business between a person and his friend, there is no one to stand up to protect them, support them and guide them and thus their status is not equal and they are subject to humiliation. Because when discussing them, the Torah speaks mainly to the public as individuals: “Don’t let them be oppressed, don’t abuse their weakness; don’t make them feel the weakness of their position.”

Unfortunately, even though we were privileged to establish a Jewish state, we do not apply the moral guidelines required by the Torah. In the state of Israel, the widow and the orphan do not receive the status they deserve. Apart from limited financial assistance, the state does not support or aid the thousands of orphaned families in Israel. In fact, it discriminates between widow and widow and orphan and orphan, between the financially privileged widow and orphan and the ones who are not.

This reality does not have to remain a reality. The injustice can be remedied with an approach that addresses widows and their young orphans in a holistic way, providing them with the specific assistance they require. As a Jewish state, our moral duty is to act as the Rambam instructs us to in his poignant words: to extend our infinite [over the top] respect for the families of the young widow(s), to give every widow and orphan preferential treatment and thus adhere to the ways of the Holy One, blessed be He, “the father of orphans, the advocate of widows, God from His holy abode.” (Psalms 6:6)

Widowed in her twenties with four young children, Hadass Glick raised her children into adulthood, alone. She married widower, Rabbi Yehudah Glick, and soon after, founded Amitsim, an organization for young widows, widowers and orphans in Israel – the first social organization established for these families.