Parshas Mishpatim instructs us not to cause pain to a widow or orphan and warns us about severe consequences that will follow if one does. As the Rambam says, (Laws of Ethics, 6:10) one must be careful to speak softly to a widow or orphan, be cautious to treat them with respect and avoid burdening them, both physically and emotionally. Rashi quotes from our Sages that this commandment includes any downtrodden individual (see Chofetz Chaim, Lavin 15, in Be’er Mayim Chayim), and is not limited to an orphan or widow.
The ramifications of this commandment are many. It is not sufficient to refrain from actively insulting a person who could use encouragement, for sometimes simply ignoring such a person can be extremely painful as well. Failure to properly acknowledge or include the brokenhearted can cause untold agony.
As the Sefer Hachinuch explains (Mitzvah 65), the Torah wants us to exercise extra compassion for the people who need it most and train ourselves to be merciful people. It is our duty to go out of our way and give proper attention to people who can use encouragement and do our best to speak to them in a soft and understanding manner. Many times, what these people need most is just a listening ear and some validation. It is our responsibility to make sure we don’t cause them any pain by shrugging them off or ignoring them. On the contrary, we must be compassionate and understanding, and look for ways to uplift their spirits.
When Mr. S. would leave the synagogue after the morning prayers, he would often bump into a severely handicapped fellow. When he did so, he would try to take a few minutes to engage in friendly conversation and give the fellow some words of encouragement. One day, Mr. S. was in a rush as he left the synagogue. He didn’t have time to chat, but on his way out he spotted the handicapped man, and politely wished him a brief “Good morning.”
He was about to continue on his way when the handicapped man asked, “Can I share a Torah thought with you?” Today, out of all days, was not the day Mr. S. had extra time, and he was tempted to excuse himself and offer to listen on a different occasion. But Mr. S. knew he could not do that to this man.
Mr. S. stood there respectfully, giving his full attention, straining himself to understand the idea the handicapped fellow was trying to relate to him, until the man concluded, leaving a big smile on his face.
We may have limited means to help others out financially, but we can all lend a listening ear and words of encouragement. Giving attention to the downtrodden, and making them feel included and respected is of untold value. This is not just a matter of an “extra credit” deed. The Torah places responsibility on every Jew to be extra cautious with the feelings of a widow, orphans and anyone in an unfortunate state who is emotionally vulnerable.
It is our duty to look out for these people and be compassionate in the way we treat them, and certainly not to ignore them. On the contrary, when we see someone who can use encouragement, we should do our best to go out of our way and give him attention and a kind word, and do whatever we can to lift his spirits.
Parshas Mishpatim by Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber