Torah Portion: Mishpatim
You shall not cause pain to a widow or an orphan (Shemos 22:21).
It is a negative commandment that we not oppress orphans or widows in deed or even in speech, as it is written: You shall not cause pain to a widow or an orphan (Shemos 22:21). Rather, all of one’s dealings with them should be with patience, kindness and mercy.
Among the roots of this mitzvah is the idea that since these people are weak, and they do not have anyone to forcefully put forth their arguments, as the widow’s husband or orphans’ father would have done had he been alive, therefore our perfect Torah urges us to acquire the traits of kindness and compassion, and that we be upright in all our deeds—to care and have mercy on them and to see their merit in every matter, even more than we would have, had their father or husband been alive.
Among the rules of this commandment is that which our Sages said, that this law is not dependant on their financial standing, on wealth or poverty, and even the widow of a king or his orphaned sons are included among [those whom] this prohibition [protects]. We are to talk to them with nothing other than soft speech; to treat them with dignity; to refrain from causing any pain to their bodies while they work; to not shame them in any way; and to care about their property more than we care about our own. If they should have any kind of dispute with anyone, the court itself is to argue on behalf of the orphans in defense against their plaintiff; the court presents whatever they think their father would have argued.
Nevertheless, [the Sages] said with regard to orphans that it is permissible to make some [tough] demands of them when it is for their own benefit, such as in the case of a teacher towards his Torah student or vocational student. Still, even when it is for their benefit, it is a mitzvah to be more lenient with them than one would be towards other people. The Rabbis also said that there is a [Heavenly] covenant that guarantees that their cries are answered, as it is written, I shall surely hear his outcry (Shemos 22:22).
In the context of this mitzvah they are called “orphans” until they reach the age that they do not need adult assistance to manage their affairs and can perform all their needs independently, like all other adults.
This mitzvah applies in all places and at all times, to both men and women; all are obligated to treat [widows and orphans] pleasantly and with respect. One who transgresses this and angered or taunted them, or took advantage of them, or struck them — violates a negative commandment. Hashem, may He be blessed, Who examines the hearts of people, exacts punishment for their anguish. See! The punishment for this is written explicitly in the Torah, as it says: My wrath shall blaze and I shall kill you by the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans (Shemos 22:23). The punishment is thus in the form of “measure-for-measure” (Sotah 8b) —the wives of those who mistreated widows will themselves becomes widows, and the children of those who mistreated orphans will themselves be orphans, without anyone to take pity on them. For whichever way a person treats others is how Heaven treats him. And if it was a woman who mistreated a widow or orphans, then she will die and her husband will marry another woman who will mistreat her orphaned children. Our Sages expounded on the verse, For if he shall cry out to Me(Shemos 22:22): “A son complains to his father, a woman to her husband, but a widow and orphan can only complain to Me; therefore, I shall listen, for I am compassionate.”