Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18, Parshat Ha Shavua for Shabbat, Saturday, February 13, 2021

What is our responsibility to the weakest among us: immigrants, the poor, and the weak? This is a political debate we have been having for decades, even centuries. But it is also a moral imperative, as we read in this week’s Torah portion, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth…” (Exodus 22:20-23) 

In ancient Israel “stranger, orphan and widow” meant the weakest members of society, those with no one to help or protect them. Commenting on this verse Ibn Ezra wrote, “whoever sees a person oppressing an orphan or a widow and does not help the orphan and the widow, he too is considered as an oppressor. You must not mistreat any widow or orphan. Widows and orphans, like strangers, are in a disadvantaged position relative to other citizens.” 

Judaism is very clear here, we are obligated to help the disadvantaged. The stranger is included to remind us that we must help, particularly when the needy are different from us, when they are the other. 

In Judaism the poor and the needy are not judged as being morally deficient because of their poverty. Rather, we are judged to be morally deficient if we do not come to their aid. 

Our Torah portion continues with the reminder that God (or our conscience) will see how we act and judge us accordingly.

~Rabbi Dean Kertesz