In 21st-century New York, when we find ourselves exploited and powerless to challenge our oppressor, we call “Help-Me Howard.” But long before the popular TV news public advocate became a household name to New Yorkers, there was the Torah, the ultimate champion of the downtrodden. In particular, widows and orphans were seen as most vulnerable and so were guaranteed Divine protection as a supplement to the commands that society not oppress them.
“If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me.” The JPS translation of the Torah (Exodus 22:22) doesn’t capture the power of the Hebrew, which doubles the verbs “mistreat–‘aneh te’aneh,” “cry out–tza’ok yiz’ak,” and “heed–shamo’a eshma’.” As is often the case, a text emphasizes a ruling because society commonly ignored it. Writes Nahum Sarna in the JPS Exodus commentary, “The exploitation of these unfortunates was so tempting, and apparently so widespread and seemingly beyond the reach of the law, that the Torah amplifies the ordinary apodictic formulation with a passionate emphasis on the gravity of the sin in the eyes of God.” We wish the Torah didn’t have to say this, but we can learn from the fact that it does that it very much had to send a strong message.
The Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, explained the Torah’s emphatic doubling language from a psychological perspective. When a widow or orphan is oppressed, he explained, it awakens within them a double sense of agony. To add insult to the injury of oppression, they are reminded of the very losses that left them in this position. The orphan’s lament is “if only father were still alive, this one would not hurt me.” The amplified agony leads to an amplified outcry, sounds which reach God at twice the usual volume.
It’s a tragedy that society’s most vulnerable members need extra protection, emotional as well as practical safeguards. But we have a deep capacity for cruelty. Singer-songwriter Bruce Hornsby painted such an image with these lyrics:
“Standing in line, marking time/Waiting for the welfare dime/ ‘Cause they can’t buy a job/ The man in the silk suit hurries by/As he catches the poor old ladies’ eyes/Just for fun he says, ‘Get a job!'”
The chorus of that song is in line with the revolutionary societal change for which the Torah fought:
“That’s just the way it is/Some things will never change/That’s just the way it is/But don’t you believe them.”
The Torah took a stand against injustice and voiced God’s deep displeasure toward those who would ignore its warnings. The public embarrassment of “Help-Me Howard”s TV cameras arriving to expose exploitative behavior is one form of warning. If only his segment, like the Torah’s harsh warning, could be rendered obsolete!