Talmidav Shel Aharon
13-5769: Mitzvah N-51
May 17, 2009
Negative Mitzvah 51 – This is a negative commandment: Do not inflict suffering on any widow or orphan
Hafetz Hayim: This prohibition is derived from the verse, “you shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child” (Exodus 22:21). Even if they are wealthy, even the widow of a king or his orphan children, it is necessary to treat them with respect. One is not to cause them distress or anguish to their hearts with harsh words. He is to be more protective of their property than of his own. If anyone brings them to rage or brings anguish to their hearts and all the more certainly, if he strikes them or curses them, he violates this prohibition: and his punishment is given explicitly in the Torah: ‘then my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword ; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.’
Whether a child is without a father or without a mother; he is called an orphan, until he grows up and attends to to all his needs alone, like other adults. It is permissible to chasten them in the learning of Torah or a craft, so as to guide them in a straight and decent path. Nevertheless, one should be solicitous with them, to rear them slowly [patiently] with kindness and compassion.
This is in effect everywhere, at every time for both men and women.
In the ancient world, in a patriarchal society, a woman or a child without a husband or a father was at a serious disadvantage. Much of the give and take of the marketplace, the protection of personal property and personal safety were dependant on a male head of household. If this man should die or be missing, the rest of the family was living without this important protection. Unable to represent themselves, the widow and the orphan were in danger of losing their property and being evicted from their homes. If the husband/father left debts, there were almost no sources of revenue for the widow or orphan to fall back on. Since a child and a woman were not expected to be wise in the way of business, they were in danger of someone cheating them literally out of house and home.
For this reason, the Torah takes up the cause of the widow and orphan, declaring that God has appointed the divine self to be the protector of these survivors. The Torah declares that any man who would afflict the widow or the orphan would be punished by having his own wife and children become a widow and orphans. In other words, he would be struck down dead.
So what does this mean for those of us who live in a pluralistic egalitarian society? First it declares that it is a divine moral imperative that we take up the cause of those who are weak and helpless in our society: the undereducated, the dropout, the child who grows up in the street or the latchkey child. It would include a single parent tying to raise a child, a widow forced back into the workplace without up to date job skills, men and women terrorized by abusive spouses. It includes those on welfare, laid off, with few skills and without a financial cushion. It is our duty as moral human beings to help them in whatever way we can, and to be cautious in our business that we do not cause them any additional harm or pain. We can’t take advantage of them, we can’t call them names, and we can’t make them feel more miserable than they already feel.
The loss of a spouse is so traumatic that even if there is no financial or safety issues, when the widow or orphan is left well off and in good hands, we still don’t add to their pain through our words or actions.
Additionally, it reminds us that, as a society, we need to make sure that we have adequate protections for those who may be at risk. We need to make sure that there is enough bread to put on each table and that each child has the opportunities that all other children may have. We need to make sure that our government has an adequate safety net and that the social service agencies have the resources to help those who have fallen on hard times pick themselves back up. If we turn our back on those who are defenseless in society, then we can expect that soon enough we may fall into the same problems and be in need of others to lend us a hand.
While we may no longer believe that the wicked will always get their just punishments, we need to insure that there are the proper laws against oppression and fraud to protect those who are in need. There is no reason to price gouge the helpless in our society, and those who do, should be liable for punishment under the law.
And finally, let us remember that it costs far less money to support someone who is falling, than someone who is already down and out. We need to always look out for one another and to be a friend to someone who really needs one.