What is the measure of a great community? What are the metrics and tools we use to evaluate the success of a society?
In this week’s parsha, Mishpatim, the Torah tell us that we must not cause pain or suffering to a widow or orphan. So strict is this law, that God promises that one who aggrieves the widow or orphan will evoke His anger, and in turn, God will strike down the insensitive person, causing his wife to be a widow and his children to be orphans.
While Parshas Mishpatim is replete with mitzvos and laws, this one stands out. The Chizkuni, a 13th century French Rabbi, points out that all of the other commandments in our parsha, from civil law, jurisprudence, laws of loans, damages, shabbos, holidays and more, are all written in the singular. The commandments and obligations of Mishpatim are directed at individuals who must each feel the mandate and imperative to live inspired, ethical and moral lives with a loyalty and fidelity to Jewish law. The obligation to show kindness and sensitivity to the widow and orphan, however, are an exception as they are written b’lashon rabim, in the plural. Why, wonders the Chizkuni, should this mitzvah specifically stand out?
On April 12, 1999, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel gave an impassioned speech in the East Room of the White House as part of the Millennium Lecture series:
What is indifference? Etymologically, the word means “no difference.” A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil.
Of course, indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.
In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, one does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it. Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response.
The Chizkuni explains that evil is not necessarily perpetrated actively. There is such a thing as passive, non-aggressive malevolence. This commandment to be sensitive and kind to the orphan and widow is written in the plural because while there is a directive to the individual, the entire community is measured by this mitzvah. This mitzvah is written in the plural because the community is measured by the standard it sets and the environment it tolerates. Even those individuals not directly, actively guilty of oppressing the less fortunate are culpable because of their indifference and apathy.
Rav Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg, author of the Ksav V’Kabbalah, explains that the Torah doesn’t limit this mitzvah to the orphan and widow. The almanah and yasom are simply symbolic of those that are missing something, those that don’t quite fit the mold and therefore may feel isolated, alone, and unnoticed. The word almanah comes from al-manah, missing a portion. In every community there are people that don’t fit the mold, they are al-mana, missing something.
Ultimately, as a community and as a society we are judged and measured by our sensitivity, kindness, awareness and inclusiveness of people who feel invisible. “Indifference is not a response.” We must never be indifferent or apathetic, but as a community, we must always seek ways to make everyone feel included and cared for. That is the mark of a truly great community.