Mishpatim: YHVH, Protector of the Powerless

Kol almanah v’yatom lo t’anun. Im aneh ta’aneh oto ki im tza’ok yitz’ak eilai shamo’a esh’ma tza’akato.

You are not to mistreat any widow or orphan. Oh, if you mistreat, mistreat them, and they cry, cry out to Me, I will hearken, yes, hearken to their outcry. (Exodus 22:21-22)

In Biblical Hebrew, when an emphatic statement is made, there are no words such as “surely” or “really”, and certainly no boldface or italics or exclamation points available. Instead, the verb is repeated twice. In the verse above, we know that the Hebrew is being unusually forceful, because not one, but every verb in the verse is repeated twice. Most English translations do not reflect this feature of Biblical Hebrew and instead aim for a more literary English rendering. Unfortunately, the reader of those translations misses the thrust of the Hebrew. When we read the Hebrew, we need to imagine this verse as a bold headline, in giant letters, shouting at us from the page: “Pay Attention to This Instruction!”*

And what are we being asked to take special notice of? That YHVH hears the cry of the widow and orphan. YHVH hears the cry of the powerless, and will protect them.

This theme is emphatically repeated many times in the Torah:

If you take, take your neighbor’s garment as a security against a debt, you must return it before the sun sets. It is his only available covering – in what else shall he sleep? If that person cries out to Me, I will hearken, for I am compassionate. (Ex. 22:25-26)

If there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against them. Rather, open, open your hand; lend, lend what is sufficient to meet their need, their need…If you do not give and they cry out to YHVH, you will incur guilt. Give, give with a full heart in your giving, and YHVH will bless you in all your efforts. (Deut. 15:7-10)

In the patriarchal social structure of ancient Israel (which still exists today in many parts of the world) every person who belonged to a clan had a go’el – a redeemer, or protector, who was the leader of that clan or family. If someone fell into captivity, the go’el was responsible to redeem them from enslavement. If someone fell into poverty, the go’el was responsible for their sustenance. But there were some who had no go’el: the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. If misfortune befell them, they had no one to count on to bail them out or to rescue them. In fact, they had no legal recourse at all. They were truly the powerless in that society.

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