Hashem's Family

The medrash relates a conversation of two great rabbis, Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yishmael. They were about to be executed by the Romans. Rabbi Simon was disturbed, because he did not know for what sin he was being punished so severely. Rabbi Yishmael asked him if he ever waited to finish drinking his cup or put on his cloak before hearing a court case involving a widow or orphan. "Yishmael, you have comforted me!" Now, it seemed, Rabbi Simon knew that there was, indeed, Divine justice.

Now, with all due respect, isn't the punishment a little bit extreme? The medrash teaches us that even the slightest amount of oppression of a widow or an orphan can bring about the consequences quoted in the verse above. It's teaching us that even so slight an offense as causing small delay before hearing their plight, long enough to finish drinking a cup or donning a garment, is very serious in Hashem's eyes.

Why is this so? The sages explain that the tears of an orphan and widow are always just below the surface. "Their tears are found," which could mean they are close to Hashem, or they are waiting to be cried at any given moment.

What if, however, a widow is fantastically wealthy? What if her life is going beautifully? What if the orphans are happy? Further, widows and orphans are not the only people that can be depressed! Why are they singled out for special protection?

Rashi explains that widows and orphans do not have anyone to protect them. Therefore, they are easy prey for people with a cruel or insensitive nature. While that is certainly true, I think there must be more to it. I don't believe that the death penalty would apply for causing them even small suffering if there were not more to this story.

In Talmudic law, there is a principle called "It is subsumed in the larger punishment." If a person, in one action, became obligated to pay damages and, at the same time, suffer the death penalty, he is exempt from paying the damages. We say that the larger punishment, in this case death, subsumes and includes the smaller punishment of monetary damages.

Based on this rule, some ask about the story of David after the Bathsheba episode. The prophet Nathan rebuked him with a hypothetical, although David didn't know it, story: "In a town, there was a rich man with many cattle, at a poor man with just one calf. When a guest came to the rich man, he took the poor man's single animal, instead of one of his own plentiful cattle, and fed it to the guest."

King David responded in anger that the man shall pay four times for the calf that he stole, and then shall be put to death. What about the Talmudic rule we learned above? If he was going to put the man to death, why did the man have to pay?

A widow and orphan have a special problem that other depressed people do not. They have no one to take care of them, perhaps physically, certainly emotionally. A woman's husband, or a child's parents, are there security in this world. If they do not have them, who do they have?

They have Hashem. He becomes their immediate family. Just as a husband calms and comforts his wife, and parents calm and comfort their children, Hashem comforts the widow and the orphan. By causing them even the slightest distress, the insensitive person is unwittingly, or willingly, attacking – as it were – Hashem and his family. Hashem responds to this by fighting back in the war, "You (the one who oppresses the widow or orphan) shall be killed by the sword…"

In the case of King David, the man had to pay for having stolen the calf. The man had to be killed, because he had waged war against Hashem by attacking Hashem's family, as it were. Being killed in war is not a legal consequence of a transgression, it is a simple fact of life. Therefore, the rule of the lesser punishment being subsumed by the greater one does not apply, because the greater one is not a punishment. It is the result of belligerency.

So we learn an important lesson! Those among us to have no one to turn to our Hashem's family. We must treat them the greatest respect and sensitivity. Hashem's kindness is always stronger, so if the punishment for oppressing the widow and orphan is so severe, the reward for helping and comforting them is all the more great!