You must not mistreat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat him [them], when he cries out to Me, I will indeed hear his cry. Then I will cause My anger to flare, and I will kill you by the sword. Your wives will become widows and your children will be orphans.
Then within one’s obligation to return the collateral to the destitute borrower: [Shemos,22:24-26]
When you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with [among] you, do not act toward him as a [demanding] creditor. .. If you take your neighbor's garment as security, you must return it to him till sunset; For this alone is his covering, the garment for his skin. With what shall he lie down [to sleep]? If it happens that he cries out to Me, I will hear [his cry] for I am gracious.
Much connect these two pieces. Both prohibit mistreating the underclass. Each relates the pain of the weak. Finally, when the disadvantaged cry out, Hashem will listen and respond.
A key word however, divides the two sections in a most significant way. We are vaguely familiar with it in other contexts - for it possesses great liturgical resonance, even as its precise meaning remains a bit beyond our grasp.
Before we identify it, let us present a final textual contrast:
In section 1, the oppressed widow/orphan cries out. Hashem responds in a stark fashion – one that creates a midah kineged midah, (a quid pro quo). Don’t oppress the widow/orphan for I will become angry and that shall become the lot of your wife/child. This jarring verse leaves little to the imagination. Why God will listen to the orphan/widow receives no mention in the pasuk.
In section 2 however, Hashem’s response to the borrower’s cry lacks any notion of quid pro quo (e.g., I will make you poor), does not speak of Divine anger, and comes fully equipped with its logic [ why will God listen to the borrower’s cry (for I am gracious).
Most (I suspect) will intuitively emerge with the near-unanimous explanation of the commentaries: The difference between the two sections is clear. In section 1, it is obvious why God hears the cry of the taunted widow/orphan. The oppressor has committed a terrible evil. No rationale need be explicated. Section 2 however confounds: Consider that the borrower’s right to the collateral seems illogical. Given that reality, what incentivizes the borrower to pay back? More significantly, the halachic universe dictates that ba’al chov koneh mashkon, i.e. the lender actually owns the collateral. Why must he (more than anyone else) return the pajamas back to the borrower? The Torah therefore explains why Hashem will listen to the borrower.
And what is the reason? The Torah’s answer here is stunning in that it provides neither legal rationale nor explicit condemnation of the lender. Rather the Torah tugs at our heart: “this alone is his covering, the garment for his skin; with what shall he sleep?” then closes in on that key word. If he cries out to Me, I will hear his cry. Why? For I am chanun (gracious).
In this word chanun, one of thirteen Divine attributes of mercy, lies the essence.
What is this wondrous midah of God known as chanun? Ramban’s beautiful words deserve our attention:
[God] Shows favor .. even though he is unworthy, the word chanun being derived from the word chinam.(for nothing). You (the lender) should not think that .. the garment of the non righteous man I will take as a pledge and not return to him- for God will not hear his cry.. therefore He (God) said: I am chanun (gracious) and I hear the cry of all who are mitchanein (beseech) me.
Chanun - Divine grace, [distinct from rachum (mercy)] comes for free, i.e, even to the one does not deserve at all. Invocation of Hashem’s attribute of chanun “requires” Him to respond - no matter what. For the lender to get in the way of chanun is a risky venture – even if he has not technically violated anything.
Of course, the attentive reader might ask – if chanun is for free, how do I buy in? More precisely, given its incredibly powerful nature, when does it manifest itself,? An incredibly deep section of Zohar illuminates our opening section:
R. Yossi taught: “A prayer for a poor man when he enwraps himself and pours out his speech before the Lord.”... This was composed by King David [when contemplating poor man’s plight as he his father-in-law (Shaul)] … He thus taught that the prayer which the poor man offers to the Almighty, ascends in advance of all other prayers. The phrase, “a prayer of the poor [tefillah l’ani]”, finds its parallel in the expression: “A prayer of Moses, the man of God [tefillah l’Moshe]”, the two being inseparable and of equal importance. ..Observe that the prayer of other people is just a prayer, but the prayer of a poor man breaks through all barriers and storms its way to the presence of the Almighty. So Scripture says: “And it shall come to pass, when he cries unto me, that I will hear; for I am chanun”;
What activates the midah of Chanun? It is the tefillah l’ani, the piercing anguished cry of the poor – the one who may “deserve nothing” but also realizes that he has no recourse. In his utter loneliness and despair, the impoverished recognizes that ultimate faith in humanity is folly (al tivtichu .. b’ven adam sh’ein lo teshua) and that, b’emes, there is no place to turn but to Hashem.
On some level, we are all that proverbial borrower desperately seek to pay back the ultimate Lender who gives all; when we achieve the clarity moment that we really can’t pay back, we are tzoeik, a penetrating cry of the heart, one so potent that equals the strength of our greatest pray-er, Moshe Rabbeinu, we can not possibly be refused - for it appeals to the midah of chanun. How moving it is that Hashem demands from the lender to enter God mode – teaching as it were, for but a moment, you can be like Me.
In our daily amidah, we turn to Hashem and ask for forgiveness: Selach lanu . From cheit (unintentional) to pesha (rebellious), please wipe away our sin. It is a logical request. We feel bad and express our regret (ki phashanu, ki chatanu). As the bracha concludes (baruch ata Hashem – Blessed are you God), suddenly our confidence dissipates. Perhaps we haven’t done the proper repentance; maybe our teshuva does not rise to the level of our trespass. We begin to panic and invoke chanun – hamarbeh lislo’ach . It is as if we are saying
Hashem, even if I do not deserve it – at the end of the day. I ask in earnest and from a place of great depth – so forgive me even as I am not worthy.
May all the shattered hearts pierce the Divine throne and bring ultimate redemption so swiftly.
1. Cf. Chizkuni, Rashbam, Ramban amongst others
2. His basic notion is derived from Rosh Hashana 17
3. Tehillim, 102:1
4. Tehillim, 90:1
5. I have omitted a remarkable section of this Zohar that evokes a comparison between between Moshe's tefillah and the poor man's tefillah . Tefillah may also refer to the singular of tefillin. Thus the Zohar says : "the one alluding to the tefillin of the head, the other to the tefillin of the arm". It is a wondrous and deep line and rich notions of comparison may be drawn.