Parshat Mishpatim: Chesed and Compassion as Prayer

What is the relationship between social responsibility and tefilla? Two verses in parshat Mishpatim highlight God’s particular attentiveness to the cries of the vulnerable and oppressed.

The Torah warns against ill-treatment of a stranger, orphan or widow: “If you mistreat them, as soon as they cry out to Me, I will hear their outcry.” The verse contains three instances of double language: aneh-ta’aneh, tza’ok-yitzak, shamoa-eshma. This emphasizes that just as the victim will feel the pain of mistreatment more deeply, God will hear their cries and respond to their suffering more urgently. 

This unique and direct link with Hashem is also seen through the Torah’s instruction on how to loan money to the poor without taking advantage of them. It states: “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you…” Rashi citing midrash Tanchuma explains that by referring to the person in need as “My people,” it is God’s reminder to treat him honorably, as he is “with God.” Also, “the poor among you” – be compassionate by considering yourself as though you are among the poor of your people. The Sefer HaChinuch explains that through this mitzvah we will be trained and habituated to the trait of kindness and of mercy. Indifference increases suffering, while developing and practicing compassionate behavior, leads to a more compassionate world. In the biblical world orphans, widows and the poor were among the most vulnerable. Therefore, it is through sensitivity to their experience and acts of lovingkindness, that we can develop a closer connection to God. 

When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in support of the civil rights movement, he said, “I felt my legs were praying.” May all of our acts of chesed and protests of injustice be like prayers and draw us closer to God. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson 

*Photo from : Martin Luther King Jr., left, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, right, during Selma march in 1965. (Courtesy of Susannah Heschel)

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