Mishpatim: A Prayer Like None Other

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18 Feb 2009

Ensconced amidst the myriad civil laws that form Mishpatim’s essence are two cry-out sections. First we find the stark prohibition of oppressing the widow/orphan [Shemos, 22:21-23]

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.

Next: The obligation to treat the desperate borrower with kid gloves’ [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 they cry out, Hashem will listen and respond.

One key word however, serves to distinguish between the sections. It is a word that we are vaguely familiar with for it possesses great liturgical resonance and yet its precise meaning remains firmly beyond our grasp. Soon we shall identify it.

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. It is a jarring verse that leaves little to 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 the reason why God will listen to the borrower’s cry (for I am gracious).

Most (I suspect) will intuitively emerge with the near-unanimous explanation of the commentaries (1): 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. What incentive exists for 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) be obligated to return the pajamas back to the borrower? The Torah must therefore explain why Hashem will listen to the borrower.

The Torah’s answer here is quite stunning in that it provides neither legal rationale nor explicit condemnation of the lender. First, the pasuk tugs at our heart: “this alone is his covering, the garment for his skin; with what shall he sleep?” then the Torah 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 lies the answer. What is this wondrous midah of God known as chanun? Ramban’s beautiful words (2) are deserving of 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 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, even to the one who is completely undeserving. Invocation of Hashem’s attribute of chanun “requires” Him to respond – no matter what. For the lender to interfere with this process is a risky venture – even if he has not technically violated anything.

One must ask: Given the incredibly powerful nature of chanun, when does it manifest itself, and more significantly – how does one buy in? Here our opening sections loom large in the following incredibly deep section of Zohar:

R. Jose taught: “A prayer for a poor man when he enwraps himself and pours out his speech before the Lord. (3)” .. This psalm was composed by King David who contemplated the plight of the poor man when fleeing from his father-in-law (Shaul). He taught that the prayer which the poor man offers up 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 (4): “A prayer of Moses, the man of God [tefillah l’Moshe]” (5), 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”;

Chanun is activated by 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, in truth, there is no place to turn but to Hashem.

On some level, we are all that proverbial borrower desperately seeking to pay back the ultimate Lender who gives all; when we achieve the moment of clarity, understanding 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. Such a cry cannot 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 prayer, 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 lisloach i.e. 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.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander


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 the Zohar that evokes a comparison between between Moshe’s tefillah and the poor man’s tefillah to as also referring to the singular of tefillin : “the one alluding to the tefillin of the head, the other to the tefillin of the arm”. So much can be said regarding this line.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.