Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, February 24, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Sometimes what seems to be the simplest of Torah verses to understand present significant questions.
In this morning’s Torah portion there is a verse that poses a textual and a theological problem.
“Every widow or orphan, you shall not afflict. Oh if you afflict afflict him!... For then he will cry, cry out to me and I will hearken, hearken to his cry. My anger shall blaze forth and I will kill you by the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.”
Let’s begin with the textual problem. The translation of that verse is my own. If you look in the Humash that we use you will see that the translation is “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”. The Hebrew text use the biblical form of the doubling of infinitive construct for emphasis. This is common. What is difficult is, in the Hebrew, the initial verse is in the plural – Kol almanah v’yatom lo t’anun but the second verse which our translation glides over is in the singular Im aney t’aneh oto. And masculine. What happened to the widow? Not only that but are we to extract from the verse that we are only not allowed to afflict widows and orphans? The previous verse suggested a wider application: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And why does the text emphasize “every widow and orphan”, are there some widows and orphans we might think it is okay to afflict? And finally the verse suggests that “if you afflict the widow and the orphan, and they cry out from the suffering, than God will respond”. So only if the persecuted express suffering, God responds?
Many commentators have weighed in on how to read these verses. Let’s start with Rashi and his response.
Rashi answers the question about why does the text specify “Each widow and orphan” because the Torah offers us the most likely case of oppression. Widows and orphans in many societies are the weakest and most easily mistreated. Don’t assume that it is okay to mistreat others, but the Torah uses the example of the most vulnerable. Rashi also suggests that the text in the next verse is elided. “Oh if you afflict afflict him!...(I am threatening you and will punish you because) when he will cry, cry out to me then I will hearken, hearken to his cry.” But Rashi does not respond to the grammatical issue.
Ramban (13th C) disagrees with Rashi that the text has a gap that needs to be filled in. He says what God is saying is “If you afflict him, all he needs to do is simply cry out to Me and immediately I will seek out the perpetrator and punish him.” No need to draw up a detailed case against one’s oppressor, a groan is enough. Ramban also understands the significance of “every widow and orphan” as even wealthy widows one may not afflict.
The commentator Don Isaac Abravanel, (15C) helps explain the switch from plural to singular – do not afflict the widow and orphan followed by “oh, if you afflict afflict him” by noting the text suggests that if you afflict either of them, the widow or the orphan, God will respond harshly. You need not be a serial abuser.
But the Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Lunshitz, (16th C Poland) has a more intriguing explanation, two in fact: On the one hand we can say that sometimes a person only afflicts the orphan and the orphan’s mother, the widow, sees with her own eyes, helplessly longing to do something, but is powerless to save her child. As a result of one affliction both are afflicted and both cry out, and God hears both and punishes the afflicter doubly in that his own wife and children will suffer. This is why the text refers in the second verse to “Oh if you afflict afflict him”
However the Kli Yakar has another reading: We can also suggest that since God is referred to as the “Father of orphans” in Psalm 68:6 then certainly all the orphan’s pain cause God pain, so to speak. Therefore the doubling of the word afflict in the verse should be read “if you afflict (him the orphan) you also afflict Him (God). Both cry out – the Justice from above and the orphan from below. And God will respond to both.
I like the Kli Yakar’s response very much because by closely reading the text he is able to offer us a psychological and a theological understanding of the consequences of abuse. The identified victim is not the only victim in a case of abuse. Bystanders, especially those who care deeply for the victim, suffer as well from the oppression and mistreatment of those who are vulnerable. When we see pictures of victims whether it be our own people, as those who had a chance to see the Anne Frank exhibit in Elkhart, or when we watch the news and see suffering of oppressed individuals inSyria, or parts of Africa, or the refugees desperately trying to escape to freedom, it is debilitating to us too. We see the suffering and we want to help. It can become too much but we have an escape valve? We turn off the TV. The mothers of the orphans don’t have that luxury.
The Kli Yakar also recognizes that there is another victim of the oppression – God. Human acts of cruelty wound the healer of shattered hearts, the Creator who intended his creation to be for Good.
The Tzror Hamor, Rabbi Avraham Saba (Spain/Portugal/Morocco 15thC) read our verse in context. The verse before states, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Just as we are not to oppress or mistreat the stranger, the foreigner, so too we are not supposed to mistreat the widow and orphan. We are dealing with those who are most vulnerable in society. The juxtaposition of the verses insists on the power of empathy. We should be sensitive to the needs of the foreigner, the stranger, because we were once in that position. We should be kind to the most vulnerable because one never knows when we will need to depend on the kindness and compassion of others.
There is a story of a group of beggars who were lined up on a busy street begging for alms. A newcomer to town watched as the busy people ignored almost every beggar. They were obviously familiar with people begging to the point of being inured to assisting them. But there was one beggar for whom people seemed to stop, read his sign and give. The man ran over to the sign to see what powerful slogan he had that was successful. The sign said, “Today I am asking, but tomorrow it might be you.”
We Jews have long been in the position of the stranger, the refugee, the widow, the orphan. We have often in our long history been among the most vulnerable in society. Today thank God, many many Jews are on the other side of the equation – we are the haves with the opportunity to help. And not only financially.
Last night I listened to Eva Kor tell her story of resistance and survival in Auschwitz. She and her twin sister were the only family members to survive. They were victims of Mengele, the Nazi doctor of Auschwitz. After the war they returned to their little village in Romania and eked out an existence until in 1950 they were able to get visas to Israel. She served in the Army for 8 years and eventually met her husband, a survivor of Buchenwald, who was living in Terre Haute, IN. She moved back with him and as she described it, the only comparison between Tel Aviv and Terre Haute was that they both begin with the letter T. Having lived life as a survivor, a refugee and an immigrant in a strange land, I asked her before the program what her feelings about the President’s order to restrict immigration. Her answer was surprising but full of understanding for the life of a stranger. She said, “It is a terrible thing to be a refugee. The suffering of homelessness, the loss of one’s culture and familiarity with one’s surroundings. We should have done more to allow these people to stay in Syria, to have given them a safe space to remain whole in the homeland.”
And this leads to the theological conundrum of this verse. The verse states “For then he will cry, cry out to me and I will hearken, hearken to his cry. My anger shall blaze forth and I will kill you by the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.”
What do we say to the Eva Kors and the Syrian refugees of the world, to those who suffer oppression and mistreatment, who cry out to God, asking for relief, for salvation which never comes? The verse teaches that God will strike down the oppressor in like measure. Some interpret the doubling of verbs to insist God will immediately respond. But the suffering continues.
So if you are Richard Dawkins, the answer is there is no God, you are a sucker to hope that a transcendent God will save you, you lose, too bad you were born in Syria, or a Jew living in Nazi Europe.
The religious response is perfect justice is impossible in this world. There is another world, after this one, in which evil is punished appropriately, and unjust suffering is relieved.
I like that answer better but it is still troubling that such suffering continues in this world. So the more I live in this world, the more I have come to believe that when the Torah tells us that God is going to respond with Divine Justice, what God is really saying is that I challenge you human beings to be my shlichim, my representatives, in raising up justice. If I hear the cry of the oppressed I will be listening. Listening to what you my people, my followers, those who dare speak in my name do. If you do nothing, if you permit this injustice to go on, then V’kharah api v’haragti etkhem bekherev. I will be furious and I will punish you – you and your world will continue to suffer from violence and cruelty because you refuse to respond.
It is sad that even our nation, long valued for its commitment to human rights and its internal progress on civil rights, is returning to fears based on prejudice and false facts that in the 1930s caused millions of our people to die because this country refused to let them enter. The Torah in its own way indicates to us that our world operates on some level in a measure for measure system. If we don’t act to stop oppression and mistreatment of the most vulnerable, we too will suffer mistreatment. Let us hope our tradition’s commitment to compassion as expressed by our ancient sages triumphs.