In Parshat Mishpatim, we read about Mitzvot which are commonly referred to as “social laws”–i.e. laws that pertain to a person’s relationship with his or her fellow human being. According to the Rabbis, Hashem is even more strict when it comes to laws between “man and his fellow man”, than laws between “man and Hashem.” Why is that so? According to R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (in the introduction of his book “Horeb”), “Mishpatim are statements of justice toward human beings as our equals and are based on man’s being able to control himself (i.e. his bodily desires.) The purer the body the clearer will the image of G-d in it be realized, as long as the body submits itself to the spirit.” R. Hirsch seems to imply that Mishpatim have an added aspect of Hashem being involved, as opposed to being laws which only involve the interaction between human beings. In other words, by keeping the Mishpatim we are somehow able to more clearly recognize Hashem. The question is–how?
One of the Mishpatim mentioned in this week’s parsha is about the treatment of orphans. It says (22:21-22) “All widows and orphans, do not oppress. If you oppress, oppress him, because he will cry out, cry out to me, I will listen, listen to his cry.” Notice any repetition in these verses? But there is a bigger question here. In verse 22 it says “if you oppress HIM and HE screams out I will listen to HIM.” The language is in the singular construct, which makes it sound like it is referring to the orphan. If that is the case, why does the punishment for such treatment of an orphan include the wife becoming a widow? That doesn’t seem to be very fair. It also seems to violate the well-known concept of “Midah K’neged Midah–measure for measure”, which is the system by which Hashem metes out reward and retribution exactly according to what a person does. What Midah K’neged Midah is there in having an innocent woman become a widow just because her husband oppressed an orphan?
Kli Yakar (R. Shlomo Efraim of Luntchitz) addresses both of these questions by saying that the first expression of “oppress” refers to the oppressing of the orphan. However, when a person oppresses an orphan the mother of the orphan is automatically oppressed as well because she realizes that she is powerless to do anything about it since she has no husband–a thought that saddens her. Thus, the second expression of “oppressed” is referring to the mother of the orphan. As a result, both she and her son cry out to Hashem–hence the double expression of “cry.” Hashem listens to both of their cries and as a result, He punishes the person in a dual manner–namely making the wife a widow and the children orphans.
But while that explains why the singular expression of “If you oppress him” is used (since the person is technically only oppressing the orphan) it does not explain why it says “He cries out.” It should really say “they” cry out, because both the mother and the orphan end up crying out to Hashem! And the same is true for the last phrase “I will listen listen to him.” It should say, “I will listen to them”.
According to Kli Yakar, the terms “He” and “Him” refer to a third party who is being oppressed. When a person oppresses an orphan he also oppresses the parent of all orphans–namely, Hashem. So now there are three beings who are oppressed–the orphan, the mother, and Hashem. The question is: Where in the verse is there a third expression to refer to Hashem?
There is a method of Torah-study by which additional lessons are gleaned from a word simply by changing the vowels. (After all, a Torah scroll has no vowels so there is some leeway with them.) A famous example of this is Ramban’s (Nachmanides) explanation of the word “V’ahavta” in the second paragraph of the Shema Yisrael prayer. While the common translation is “And you shall love G-d”, Ramban notes that if we use different vowels, the word reads “V’EEhavta–You shall make G-d loved.” According to Ramban, Jews must act in a moral, decent way so that when people see us they will come to love the G-d who told us to act that way. Thus, Hashem becomes “loved” by others.
In our verse, the word “Oto–him” can be read with different vowels, as “Eeto–with him.” In other words, the first word “oppress” is for the orphan, the second is for the mother and the word “Eeto–with him” refers to Hashem who is oppressed with the orphan and his mother. The next phrase of “Cry out, cry out to me” refers to the orphan crying, his mother crying and Hashem. The word “Ayly–to Me” can be read as “Aylee” which is Hashem’s name “Kel”. That name of Hashem refers to His strength, which is His Midat HaDin–attribute of justice. Hashem’s Midat HaDin cries out to Him saying, “How are You letting that person oppress the orphan?! Why aren’t you doing something to stop him?!” So Hashem’s response is to “Listen, listen to His cry.” The first “listen” is for the orphan crying. The second “listen” is for the mother. The third word “His cry” refers to Hashem’s Midat HaDin crying out on behalf of the orphan. Hashem ultimately listens to His Midat HaDin and punishes the person Midah K’neged Midah. Thus, the Midah K’neged Midah is also three-fold. For the mother who was oppressed and cried, the person’s wife is widowed. For the orphan who was oppressed and cried, the person’s children are orphaned. For the piece of Hashem’s soul which cried (i.e. His Midat HaDin) the person, who is a “piece of Hashem’s soul”, is taken from this world.
Could this be what R. Hirsch meant when he wrote that via keeping the Mishpatim “the clearer will the image of G-d be realized”? We can’t know for sure. Similarly, we can’t know for sure how many people we hurt every time we upset just one human being. The only thing we do know is that if we (G-d forbid) hurt someone, we are always hurting at least two beings–the person and Hashem. Perhaps that is why Hashem considers Mishpatim to be so important. After all, when we refrain from hurting each other, we also refrain from hurting Him.