Parshas Mishpatim: G-d Hears. So, Must We
Do not murder.
Do not steal.
Do not bear false witness.
There are any number of direct commandments that set the boundaries for lawful behavior but fewer that carry with them the certainty of God’s response. Kol almana v’yatom lo te’anun – “Do not abuse a widow or orphan… for if you do abuse them, if they cry out to Me, I will unquestionably heed their cry.” (Shemot 22:21-23) “My anger will flare, and I will kill you by the sword…”
The Torah sees the widow and orphan as emblematic of those most vulnerable in our community; those whose physical and emotional existence are most precarious. Anyone – particularly those entrusted to lead the community – who adds to the misery of these poor souls will have to reckon with an angry God.
It is never “all right” to abuse any person. As Rashi teaches, hu ha’din l’kol adam – the law is just the same for everyone. Still the Torah speaks of the widow and orphan because they are teshushei koach, society’s weakest They are the ones that the wicked Amalekites attacked first, the easy prey. Certainly, it is right that God commands us to be better than that! What manner of person would add to the suffering of one whose days are almost unbearable? What kind of man would press his advantage against one who has no recourse?
A man who deserves no standing.
The Torah speaks of the widow and the orphan because they have always been taken advantage of by the mean and powerful. But we find ourselves broken to discover that, though we have become so much better as a community in answering the needs and protecting the widow and the orphan through countless charities and chesed outreach organization, there is an uglier, more horrible abuse that exists in our community. Here we must look unflinchingly at the horror endured by the most vulnerable people in our time, victims of sexual abuse. These poor souls are shamed, physically, psychologically and spiritually. In certain Observant communities here and in Israel little to nothing is done to rescue these victims from the clutches of predators; indeed, their trauma is often denied and ignored.
In these pesukim in Parashat Mishpatim there are three “double phrases” – three verbs written in duplicate fashion for emphasis. 1. ano teane 2. tzaok yitzeak 3. shamoa eshma. The Torah, where every word, pasuk, and space matters, has seen fit to double the abuse, double the crying out, double the hearkening to those cries. Why?
Perhaps it is in recognition that those who are abused are rarely heard the first time! Perhaps their pain is not heeded at first! Perhaps they are not heard the first time after they cry out for help, for justice, for validation! The doubling emphasizes that they will have to repeat their sad story and it emphasizes that woe to us that we do not hear! Tzaok yitzeak! The Torah tells those who are abused to not simply repeat their protest but to shout, to cry, to scream; to do so nonstop until someone hears! How long did it take until the crying was finally heard by the Beis Din in Tzfat?
The Kotzker Rebbe tells us that abusing the widow or orphan is never a “one-shot blow”. It is never a one-time humiliation. Every insult awakens earlier hurts piled upon the indignity of having to accept the pain with no one to come to their defense. No father to protect the orphan. No husband to be there for the widow. Each insult, a double insult. Each cry to God, a double cry. And, in response, a dual promise from God that He will listen.
The anguish of the widow and orphan does not let up. Neither does the humiliation and pain of the victims of sexual abuse crying out to be heard only to be ignored, mocked, rejected, and shunned for years, decades even!
Keli Yakar tells us the double wording teaches us that one act can cause double pain, that abusing an orphan brings pain too to the orphan’s mother. Abuse is always a double blow. For the victim of sexual abuse, whose torment is finally realized after nonstop cries, years of pain and suffering, of being silenced and hurt, the pain and hurt suffered by parents, siblings, friends, the community itself cannot be overstated. Like waves growing out from an undersea event that become a tsunami hundreds and thousands of miles away, they destroy so much that was once beautiful.
Ramban tells us that when God promises to “surely hear” the cry of the widow or the orphan He will eventually hear. The predator torments the vulnerable, choosing his victim knowing that there is no one to speak on his or her behalf, no one to come to his or her rescue, but he should fear. Eventually, God will “hear”.
These depraved predators are so wicked and cruel in their tactics. They try to take away their victims’ voices. “No one will believe you,” they whisper and shout. The predator is big. The predator is strong. The victim is small. The victim is weak.
But God will hear the victim!
Im ane teane oto.
In the Mechilta, one Sage opines that the repetition teaches that one is guilty of abuse, “whether a grievous affliction or a trivial one.” Another suggests that the double teaching means one is not culpable unless he afflicted him and then repeated his offense. In short, it takes two transgressions to demonstrate guilt.
Consider these two views in light of what we’ve heard these past weeks. As the sordid details of these recent events come to light, we hear that the abuse was “misunderstood”. Everything done had been done “in jest”, “playfully”.
For whose benefit? To whose detriment?
“You’re overblowing the whole thing.”
“He didn’t really mean that…”
To whose detriment?
Who is protected in these denials? The strong; the one of standing.
Who is diminished? The weak; the vulnerable. The widow. The orphan. The victim of sexual abuse!
There is no plausible excuse for even the slightest offense when it comes to sexual abuse! Still, if you are one who takes the second sage’s view, who fears that an “untrue” accusation might soil the reputation of an upright man, then with the second offense guilt is certain, no? And with the third? Fourth? Tenth? Fifteen years later still the excuses? Still the pleas for leniency?
Not even for a “trivial” offense. And what, you may ask, constitutes a “trivial” offense, one that could invite God’s anger? Consider when Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and R’ Yishmael Kohen Gadol, two of the Ten Martyrs of whom the Talmud states, “No other creatures can stand in their chambers in the World to Come” were sentenced to death. R’ Yishmael was crying. Rabban Shimon asked him, “Why are you crying? In just a few minutes you will be sitting with the greatest tzadikim!” He replied, “I am sad over the way we are being led to our death – like criminals who desecrated the Sabbath, or idol worshippers.” R’ Yishmael was asking why he was deserving of such a severe form of punishment. Rabban Shimon observed that while it was true that he’d never desecrated the Sabbath or worshipped idols, “…perhaps once while you were eating or sleeping, a woman came to your door to ask a halachic inquiry, and you caused her to wait her until you had finished eating or sleeping?” The Torah prohibits this as the posuk states: ‘You shall not torment a widow, for if you do...I will kill you by the sword...’”
Imagine! One among the Asarah Harugei Malchus seeking to understand why he deserves the cruel fate ahead of him being told that perhaps it was because he kept a widow waiting unnecessarily. What then of those who didn’t just keep the abused waiting but never let them through the door at all, refused to hear them out, refused to believe them, to acknowledge them, validate them, put the onus of their hurt on them! Not once. Not twice. Over and over for years and years.
What about those whose doors continue to be locked and sealed?
God’s fire and sword await those guilty of trivial abuse. I cannot even imagine what awaits those whose abuse far, far exceeds the trivial but one thing I am sure of, those who are complicit in hiding the abuse will share in the punishment.