D’var Torah – Purim 5751 / March 18, 2011
Rabbi Maurice Harris
Shabbat shalom. Tonight I’d like to focus on Purim, since it comes but once a year and arrives tomorrow night. Edith Deen writes, “Like many of the great characters in history, Esther makes her first appearance as one of the humblest of figures, an orphan Jewess.” Deen is right. Esther – also known by her Hebrew name, Hadassah – is introduced to us as an adopted child. The scroll of Esther states at its outset that her parents had died, and that she was raised by her cousin, the pious and virtuous Mordechai.
As many of you know, Esther is not alone in the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible – as an adopted child who goes on to become a hero. The same holds true for Moses, who was adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the Egyptian court. Like Esther, Moses also redeems his people from catastrophe.
Joseph, of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame in the Book of Genesis, comes to mind as well. Although he lived to be a teenager under his father’s roof, his mother died when he was young and, when his jealous brothers sold him to slave-traders and told their father that he was dead, Joseph became an orphan of sorts. Bereft of his birth family, the sheltered and pampered youth goes on to save the day.
So what is it with orphans in the Bible, or for that matter, in the great stories of mythology and even Hollywood fame? We humans, the world over, seem to love a good story about a child overcoming this form of adversity only to rise to greatness. The Torah is emphatically clear that wronging the orphan is a sure way to invite God’s wrath. In Exodus chapter 22, God tells us: You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn… And the prophet, Hosea, says about God: In you the orphan finds mercy.
I’ve been teaching a unit in my 7th grade religious school class on the many ways the Jewish people have conceived of God over the centuries. One of the things that stands out when you look at how our biblical ancestors described God’s attributes is that God cares especially for the poor and the most vulnerable. God feels a special closeness to orphans, it seems. Psalm 68 includes a verse with some striking language about orphans. God is called avi yitomim, the father of all orphans. Maybe this explains the intensity of the warning God gives against harming orphans in Exodus 22.