By Rabbi Leah Berkowitz
Over the last few weeks, congregations throughout the country have been plagued by a series of email scams.
The scammer creates a fake email address similar to that of the clergy person, and sends an email to congregants asking them to purchase gift cards to help the needy. By the time the congregant realizes that the email was a scam, the money is long gone and often untraceable.
I mention this in part as a public service to readers of the Exponent so that I can encourage you to be vigilant about emails asking for money, gift cards or wire transfers.
But I’m also sharing this because I am angry. My anger is rooted not only in my own frustration, but in the commandments laid out in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim.
“You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 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…” (Exodus 22:20-22).
There is no commandment repeated more often than the commandment to care for the stranger. Throughout the Torah, we are reminded, again and again, to look out for the most vulnerable in our society: widows, orphans, strangers, the poor and public servants like the Levites.
Why are these categories considered to be the most vulnerable? In the ancient world, when men held the lion’s share of the socioeconomic power (even more so than today), widows and orphans were not merely people who had suffered the tragic loss of a family member. They were more specifically those who no longer had a male relative to support them, protect them and advocate for them.
Why are we commanded to look out for these individuals? Because we know what it is like to be vulnerable. During our time in Egypt, we experienced both the kindness of the stranger — in that we were saved from the famine in Canaan — and the oppression of the stranger — in that we were forced into slavery. Both experiences are meant to be the basis of our empathy toward disadvantaged individuals and groups. We have, time and again, stood in their shoes or, in this case, known what it was like to go barefoot.
Scams like this thus offend us on two levels. First, they prey on the defenseless: the elderly and people living alone. Second, they prey on those whose intentions are to help the needy, turning their divinely commanded empathy against them. To quote another Torah portion, they are placing a “stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14).
The one tiny bright spot in this whole mess was that employees at retail establishments have gotten wind of these scams. In some cases, they intervened when a customer attempted to make a large purchase of gift cards, particularly when the customer was a senior citizen. In doing so, without knowing it, they were fulfilling the commandments of Mishpatim.
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra points out that the phrase lo ta-anun — “do not oppress” — is written here in the plural. This is meant to teach us that the oppression stems not only from perpetrator of the wrong, but also from anyone who witnesses the behavior and keeps silent (Ibn Ezra on Exodus 22:21). It is our responsibility to remove the stumbling block, even when we were not the ones that placed it there.
According to Rabbi Shai Held, the commandments in Mishpatim are designed to bring about “a radical democratization of moral responsibility. The whole society … is responsible to ensure that the widow and the orphan are not abused …. God wants Israel to create an anti-Egypt, a society in which the weak and defenseless are protected rather than exploited, loved rather than degraded” (Held, “The Heart of Torah,” Volume 1, p. 181).
But this system is not always perfect. In the Talmud, we see how Rabbi Chanina reacts when he discovers that one of the regular recipients of his charity was a fraud. But rather than be discouraged from giving, he says, “Let us be thankful for the frauds, for without them we would always be sinning (by not giving to everyone who asks).” (Ketubot 67b)
The laws of Mishpatim establish that, as Israelites, we are responsible for creating and maintaining a just society, in which the needy are cared for and the vulnerable are protected. Each day, we learn anew that this process is ongoing and requires constant vigilance. But even as we strive to be more aware, we must continue to be empathetic and generous when the opportunity arises.
Rabbi Leah Berkowitz is the rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.