Sensitivity Training

The widow and orphan are specified, but the Torah’s intention is to sensitize us to all people and uses the most vulnerable as examples.

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Rabbanit Shira Smiles,

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Young women study Torah
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“Sensitivity Training” did not begin in modern day corporations or schools; it began centuries ago when Bnei Yisroel were given the laws delineated in Parshat Mishpatim (this week's Torah reading) and related laws throughout the Torah. These laws are intended to make us super sensitive to the most vulnerable members of society and, by extension, to all mankind.

Within this parsha, one group of verses stands out as particularly intense. Beginning with sensitivity to the stranger (or convert), a warning oft repeated in the Torah, the verses continue: “You shall not cause pain (afflict) to any widow or orphan, for if you afflict, afflict (surely afflict) him, if he shall cry, cry out to Me, I will hear, hear his outcry. My wrath shall blaze through My nostrils (vechoro api) and I shall kill you by the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans.”

This is indeed powerful language. The only other times Hashem refers to His anger as “blazing through His nostrils” is when He admonishes us against worshipping strange gods. Rabbi Schrage Grosbard asks why do only these two sins elicit such strong condemnation. The effect is further compounded by the doubling of the major verbs, notes Rabbi Sorotskin as he cites the Seforno in "Habinah Vehabracha". There must be information conveyed and lessons learned beyond the dramatic effect of saying, “If you afflict, afflict,” “If he shall cry, cry out,” and “I will hear, hear.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who regularly examines the etymology of words to extract their deeper meaning within the context of the Torah, notes that almanah, widow, is derived from elam, mute, for the widow has lost her voice, the voice of her husband who would speak for her. Yotham, orphan, also connotes someone vulnerable; kothom is crippling someone by amputating his legs. The orphan is vulnerable because his parent is no longer there to support him as legs support the body.

Because these are weaker individuals within society, Rabbi Kreiser, citing "Sefer Hachinuch", notes that we must be extremely careful in how we speak to them, aiming always toward compassion. The doubling of the verbs, explains the Medrash, is to emphasize the severity of the prohibition, that a minor, painful word transgresses equally as a major affliction.

Further, Rabbi Sorotskin adds, a widow and an orphan suffer doubly when they are afflicted, first from the affliction itself and then from the memory that they are alone.

In "Daas Schrage", Rabbi Grosbard focuses on Hashem’s crushing anger, flaring nostrils ready to breathe flames. When we afflict the orphan we are afflicting His children. After all, Hashem, the King of kings, is Father to the orphan and the only One upon Whom he can rely; He is Avi yesomim veDayan almanot (Tehillim 68:6). So when one afflicts the orphan, one is offending the King Himself, and therefore merits such severe punishment.

As Rabbi Kreiser adds in "Ish Lerayayhu", if you’re starting up with the widow and orphan, you’re starting up with their Father and Protector, Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself. Therefore, we must be extremely sensitive to both their feelings and their money, irrespective of social or financial status.

Rashi points out that although the widow and orphan are specified, the Torah’s intention is to sensitize us to all people and uses the most vulnerable as examples. Even those people who come to our homes as solicitors of charity deserve our respect. If we can’t give a donation, we can validate their effort and give them a smile, Rabbi Sternbach urges us in "Taam Vodaath".

What is the essence of affliction? From the various commentators, it appears that any preventable discomfort we inflict on another, even unintentionally, is affliction. Many commentators cite the dialogue between Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yishmoel as they were being led to their deaths by the Romans. Rabbi Shimon was distraught. How had he sinned to deserve such a fate? Rabbi Yishmoel replied, “Was there a time someone came to you for a judgment or question and you made them wait while you finished your drink or changed shoes?” Making them wait an extra few moments when they are in a vulnerable position is a kind of affliction.

Rabbi Shimon was comforted, for he now realized that in some small way he had caused pain to another. We are not judged on this high standard, but we must nevertheless think before we speak and before we act. We may be unaware of the inner world of someone within the circle of people to whom we are talking, but an innocuous statement about children or an upcoming wedding may cut them to the core.

Rabbi Frand understands that we cannot fix most situations. We cannot bring back the widow’s husband or the orphan’s father. What we can do is open our hearts and listen to their cries. But we must put ourselves in the position of each person with whom we are interacting, writes Rabbi Ezrachi in "Bircath Mordechai". How would we want to be treated? Does he not reflect the same image of God we ourselves reflect? If we treat him disrespectfully, we are disrespecting the very image of God!

Hashem’s anger can flare up or can be contained, notes rabbi Belsky in "Einei Yisroel". He can “take a deep breath – ma’arich af” or He can blaze forth and punish immediately. While our insensitive treatment of others will ignite His anger, we also have the possibility of subduing His anger and bringing forth blessings. Hashem has always created balance. When we have afflicted another and he cries out to Hashem, Hashem hears the cries and passes judgment. On the other hand, when we treat others with respect and compassion, when we give tzedakah and help others in difficult situations, their words of thanks and praise also rise to heaven, and Hashem rains down blessings upon us.

Focusing on the double language, the Ktav Sofer offers a completely different perspective on our verse. While each of us must be sensitive to the orphan and widow, the vulnerable among us, the orphan and widow must also be sensitive and not cry out to God for redress immediately, for they do not know the circumstances that may have brought their afflicter to act or speak the way he did, perhaps completely thoughtlessly. If the orphan calls out and brings punishment on another, the orphan himself is also liable for causing pain to another. His own pain does not relieve him of his responsibility to be sensitive to others.

Rabbi Pincus, in "Tiferes Shimshon", provides an analogy that gives us greater insight into the social dynamics depicted in the orphan’s cry and Hashem’s response. When someone goes to a rich man and asks for help, the rich man, being compassionate, will undoubtedly give him a donation. However, if someone comes to him crying that he has no one else to turn to, the rich man’s response will be not only more generous but also offered with greater empathy, for he is the sole refuge of this poor man and he feels a fatherly responsibility.

Similarly, the widow and orphan have no one else to turn to, so they cry out to God to be their Savior, to act as their Father. The double language reflects the widow and orphans total dependency on Hashem, if He doesn't respond immediately they call out again.  This, notes Rav Pincus is the mode each of us needs to embrace, realizing there is no other recourse to receive what we need except from Hashem.

We already have an example of salvation through an orphan. Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon cites the Medrash on a verse in the Book of Eichah – Lamentations: “We have become orphans, fatherless. Our mothers are like widows.” On this verse, Hashem responds, according to the Medrash, “I swear that I will give you a leader and a savior who is also an orphan.” 

How and when does this happen? In the story of Purim, as Queen Esther, an orphan raised by her uncle, prepares to enter the throne room of Ahashuerosh without having been summoned, risking death, turns her heart and her eyes Heavenward and prays, “Hashem,” she silently cries, “I am totally alone. I have no one else to turn to except You. Do not forsake me. Please help me in my mission.” 

Hashem, Father of orphans and Father of us all, invests her with the beauty of royalty. The king extends his scepter to her, and the events leading to the salvation of the Jews and Haman’s downfall are set into motion.

Rabbi Solomon continues. We too have the opportunity to bring about redemption. We have to turn to Hakodosh Boruch Hu as if we ourselves are orphans, for in truth we have no one else on whom to rely but on our Father in heaven, for He surely hears the cries of orphans.

Further, we can act toward others as a father of orphans, with sensitivity and caring, and helping to take care of their needs. The way we behave here will open the pathway for Heaven to rain down blessings and salvation for us, as Mordechai did when he chose to go back into exile from Eretz Yisroel to care for his orphaned niece, to become an earthly father to an orphan.  Hence, on Purim Matanot LeEvyonim, gifts to the poor, widows and orphans, wherein we act this role plays such a pivotal role.

As we work on our sensitivity to others and try to treat others with the love of a father for his children, may Hashem also treat us as His orphaned children, sending us blessings and hastening our salvation.

Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein