Sometimes The Obvious Is Not So Obvious

People often look for something new and different, in various aspects of life. Although the familiar is appreciated, there’s something engaging and inviting when it’s new and exciting. A new song, a new food and a new insight are all appreciated as they emerge.

The Torah also subscribes to the practice of presenting that which is novel and not obvious. In fact, it is common for the Talmud to quote a teaching or an opinion, retort “Pshita – That’s obvious,” and then the Talmud resolves why it is not obvious.

Parshat Mishpatim is filled with laws on how to live our lives as Jews. There are the laws of the different types of watchmen and what they are responsible for, there are also laws of damages and compensation, amongst a host of others.

However, there is one law that when it is first read seems obvious. Let’s take a look:


Exodus 22:21

כׇּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן׃

You (pl) shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.

As the Torah is the preeminent book of morals for all time, does this verse not seem obvious? We can probably all agree that one should not ill-treat the vulnerable widow, orphan or any other member of the community. It seems to be such a no brainer not to mistreat the widow or orphan, why would the Torah write this? How can we understand this?

When we take a closer look at the verse, we can understand that there are two significant insights that can be gleaned.

Firstly, the Chizkuni -Rabbi Chezekiah ben Manoach (13th Century France) explains that although it is understood that it is forbidden to mistreat the vulnerable widow and orphan, unfortunately it is the most vulnerable populations that face the greatest threats. For example, in present day, we often hear of attempts of fraud taking place with the elderly, or  immigrants, those with special needs and children who are more susceptible to be tricked by schemes they don’t understand.

Therefore, the Torah goes out of its way to impress upon the readers and remind them to be aware of these vulnerable populations and be certain to protect them from any maltreatment.

The Netziv -Rabbi Naftoli Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1816-1893 France) draws our attention to the final letter of the verse – the Nun. The Nun makes the verse plural. Therefore, the Torah is specifically advancing this verse speaking to many at once. Why?

The answer is because one might think that as long as he is not mistreating the vulnerable, he is not at fault even if it is taking place regardless. Or, you might not be taking advantage of a vulnerable group directly, but you may gain benefit from their mistreatment. This verse teaches us that we are all responsible for any injustice in front of our eyes that we could prevent. As the Talmud Bavli states – “We are all responsible for one another.” (Shavuot 39A)

The Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey fulfills the truth in this verse by supporting all sectors of our Jewish community, including those that are vulnerable including but not limited to older adults, individuals with special needs and those in crisis in Israel and overseas. Thank you for partnering with us and supporting these efforts to ensure the continuity of a vibrant Jewish community locally, in Israel and around the world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Epstein
Community Scholar in Residence