Defending an Orphan, Saving a Life

The melamed of the town of Nisvizh was drinking a glass of tea, keeping a watchful eye on his talmidim at the next table when a fight broke out between two of his young charges.

After the melamed shouted at them to stop their battle, one of the children — Shlomo, the son of one of one of wealthier townspeople — told the melamed that it was Duvid’l, an orphan, who had started the fight. Without inquiring as to the truth of that claim, the melamed walked over to little Duvid’l and slapped him hard across his face, and then went back to drinking his tea.

Sitting next to Duvid’l was a boy named Yosef Berele, with whom he would review the Gemara each day. Yosef Berele had watched what had happened, and was well aware that in reality it was Shlomo who had started up with Duvid’l. He had noticed on previous occasions that the melamed would show favoritism to the wealthier children at the expense of the children of the poor.

Deeply anguished at the injustice he had just witnessed, Yosef Berele walked over to his melamed and addressed him bluntly.

“I know why the rebbi didn’t investigate who really started the conflict and punished Duvid’l. It is because he is a yassom and does not have a father to defend him, and his mother is very poor and pays the melamed only a small amount of s’char limud. Shlomele’h, on the other hand, has a father who is rich, he pays a lot of s’char limud and is also the gabbai in the beis medrash, so the rebbi is afraid of him.”

“But the Torah says,” Yosef Berele continued, “‘You should not show favoritism in judgment’ (Devarim 1:17), ‘You should not do wrong in justice,’ (Vayikra 19:15), and ‘You shall not persecute any orphan or widow.’ (Shemos 22:21)…

“I do not want to learn Torah by a rebbi who doesn’t keep the Torah,” declared Yosef Berel — who was only seven-and-a-half years old — and he picked up his sefarim and walked out of cheder.

His father reprimanded him, and pleaded with him to reconsider. The melamed promised to mend his ways and treat all his talmidim fairly. But it was to no avail. Yosef Berele refused to return to cheder, and instead — despite his young age — he went to learn in the beis medrash among adults.

A few months later, Yosef Berele fell very ill. The doctor told his parents that there was no hope; the child had only hours to live. Preparing for what was thought to be inevitable, his maternal grandfather, who was a kohen, left the house, while his shattered father sat next to the bed, murmuring tefillos. In the next room sat the grief-stricken mother and grandmother.

Suddenly the child opened his eyes and said, “Father, mother, I am alive, please give me something to drink.”

Her hands shaking, his mother rushed into the room and gave him a little tea to drink. The doctor, who was hurriedly summoned, examined the child and to his wonderment declared that the danger had passed and the child would recover.

Later that day Yosef Berele related to his family what had occurred. He told how he was about to leave this world when Sender the carpenter, the father of Duvid’l, had suddenly come from Shamayim, wearing a torn tallis over his tachrichim. He forcefully pushed away the Angel of Death, shouting, “Don’t you know that Yosef Berele is a defender of orphans, and he came to the defense of my Duvid’l from the hands of the melamed!

Little Yosef Berele grew up to be the Beis Halevi, the founder of the famed Brisker dynasty of Torah giants.

***

This week, the Ibn Ezra teaches us a powerful and most relevant lesson.

He points out that Torah first states “kom yassom v’almanah lo s’anin — You shall not persecute any orphan or widow.” The word “s’anin” is lashon rabim, addressing a number of people.

The very next passuk states that “Im aneh se’aneh oso, ki im tza’ok yitz’ak Eilai, shamo’a eshma tza’akaso” — If you [dare to] cause him pain … for if he shall cry out to Me, I shall surely hear his outcry … (Shemos 22:21-22)

In this passuk the Torah uses se’aneh — which is used to refer to an individual.

For the Torah is teaching us that those who stand by while an individual is causing pain to an orphan or a widow and do not come to their defense, it is considered as if they too persecuted the orphan or widow…

Rashi on this passuk reveals that this prohibition applies to anyone who is being persecuted, and the Torah refers to a widow and an orphan because they often are the victims of mistreatment.

As the story of the Beis Halevi reminds us, while it often takes much courage to stand up for a defenseless victim, the rewards are very great.