Last year, my parents took my younger sister and brother to see Annie (one of my favorite musicals). My sister Mira (who was eight at the time) was terribly upset by the show. The show recounts the story of an orphan who is adopted by a billionaire businessman. Mira was so disturbed at the idea of orphans and their mistreatment that she refused to see another play. This year, when Mira was offered to go see “Mary Poppins,” she initially burst into tears and adamantly objected. Luckily, she was eventually persuaded to see the show and loved it!
In this week’s Torah portion, called Mishpatim, God too is outraged by injustice to orphans. In the portion, God explains the rules for creating a just society. These laws cover a lot of territory —civil and criminal stipulations, rules for worship and more. The ordinances are explained in a calm and straightforward manner, as are the penalties for not following each law. However, when God speaks of the widow and the orphan, God uses the strongest possible language, saying:
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, and I will put you to the sword; and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
God’s indignation stems from concern about the most vulnerable members of our society. As Rabbi David Lieber of blessed memory explained: “the decency of a society is measured by how it cares for its least powerful members.”
On reflection, there seems to me something holy in Mira’s fury. Too often, we become accustomed to injustice and unwittingly develop a blasé attitude, when in truth we should be outraged by the brutality that surrounds us. Reading the morning paper or watching the evening news should disturb us and spur us to action. Walking by a homeless person should be so upsetting that we can’t go on with the day as usual. By seeing the world through fresh eyes, children remind us not to accept the “hard knock life” as it is but to strive for the world as it should be.
Indeed recently, I sensed an opening when news stations brought images of the earthquake in Haiti so powerfully into our homes. People from around the world were moved by the pictures of children who had been injured or orphaned and gave generously to help. People were also bewildered and outraged by the story of those accused of trying to take advantage of the orphaned children or impoverished families in Haiti.
Sometimes, there is a tendency to open a bit during a crisis and then close back up again when everything returns to normal. The Torah portion reminds us that the need to protect the vulnerable and seek justice is always with us. As the text teaches, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The Bible repeats this idea incessantly — like a mantra — hoping to ingrain the idea in our hearts. But in case we ever forget, we need only look to our children and discover God’s indignation reflected in their own.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.