Between the Lines—Mishpatim

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu

Mekhilta, Nezikin 18, on Exodus 22:22


מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל משפטים - מס' דנזיקין פרשה יח

כי אם צעק יצעק אלי שמוע אשמע צעקתו. יכול כל זמן שהוא צועק אני שומע, ואם אינו צועק איני שומע, תלמוד לומר שמוע אשמע מה תלמוד לומר כי אם צעוק יצעק אלי, אלא ממהר אני ליפרע על ידי שהוא צועק יותר ממי שאינו צועק. והלא דברים קל וחומר, אם כשהיחיד צועק על היחיד, שמוע אשמע צעקתו, כשהרבים צועקים על אחת כמה וכמה; ומה אם מדת פורענות מעוטה, כשיחיד צועק על הרבים כך, מדה טובה, ורבים מתפללים על היחיד על אחת כמה וכמה.

"For if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry." Does it mean only if he cries I will hear, and if he does not cry I will not hear? But Scripture says: "I will surely heed their cry!" Behold then, what does Scripture mean by saying: "If they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear"? Simply this: I will punish more quickly when there is one crying than when there is no one crying. Now it may be reasoned by using the method of kal vakhomer: If God hears when an individual cries, how much more will He hear when many cry? And it is further to be reasoned, by using the method of kal vakhomer: If with regard to meting out evil, which is of less importance, the rule is that when the individual cries against the group God hears his cry, how much more should this be the rule with regard to meting out good, which is of greater importance, and especially in the case when the group prays for the individual?

What I love about this midrash is the way it shifts the power from God's hands to ours. The verses at hand deliver a warning about God's power to punish us, lest we abuse the weak in our society: "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 and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans" (Exod. 22:21-23, using the New JPS translation vs. the old JPS translation [above], which we have retained because it reflects the Hebrew grammar so crucial to the midrash).

The midrash balks at the surface-level law here: does God really require the suffering to cry out to Him in order to act on their behalf, for their deliverance? The omnipotent God of Justice and Mercy would act without being asked. What the verses really teach, then, is not about God's power but about our own. The text addresses us, the readers, as power brokers; as the ones holding the power and at risk of oppressing others. The message, a meaningful communication in and of itself, tells us that no matter how powerless we may feel or be, we always have some power over somebody in some way—and so we need to be careful.

The midrash, however, suggests that we-the-readers are the ones crying out. We can cry out as individuals, as the Torah verse envisions with its singular verbs; but we can also cry out as a community. We can cry out in complaint, or we can cry out for blessing. And most powerfully, we can cry out as a community to pray for the good of an individual. The power has shifted, as have the verbs: the verse was about an individual crying out for a group (an individual and his family) to be punished. The midrash makes it about a community praying for an individual to be helped. And so the law is turned on its head. What was a threat becomes a teaching about optimism, of placing the power to do good in our own hearts, and we are encouraged to turn from our narrow self-interest to the communal interest for the benefit of particular people in our communities who deserve good and need our prayers.