The Cry of the Downtrodden – צירופים חדשים

The Cry of the Downtrodden

Hillel Mansfield

23 June 2019
Reading time: 35 min read

It is important to remember in view of all the cold statistics often cited on poverty that poverty has distinctively emotional side

The first cry recorded in the Torah comes from the animated life-force in Hevel’s blood, which is communicating with God still after Hevel’s death.

Religion naturally gravitates to the otherworldly; it reminds us of the transcendent and out-of-this-world.

Who is the executer of the cry? The answer is nobody, or at least a nobody. A nobody registers the cry, but God still hears it.

The cry has a particular source – the anonymous person who society has consigned to invisibility, And a particular content, which is something like: 'I am here. Remember?'

The very architecture of Jewish life has to be set up in a way that the cries of the poor will be heard.

The measure of man in infinity demands retribution. Precisely because of the infiniteness of human value and because man is created in the image of God, bloodshed cannot go unanswered.

God remembers. He holds on. In this sense, he is like the blood-avenger – it is wrong to just 'let things go' when dealing with entities of infinite worth.

a thorough examonation of the biblical cry, in order to understand the emotional and existential side of poverty.


In this (electronic) volume of essays, several of the essays deal with issues of wealth and poverty.  But whereas poverty represents the material side to suffering, the Bible and in particular the five books of the Torah – which are not usually explicit about the inner life of its characters – put a special emphasis on the emotional pain that accompanies poverty. Indeed, it is important to remember in view of all the cold statistics often cited on poverty that poverty has distinctively emotional side.  One should add that suffering goes even beyond emotions and is part man’s basic existential situation.  In fact, as we will see, the same theme of the cry of the poor extends to all forms of despair such as excommunication, banishment, and murder. The Torah explores this pain through the trope of the ‘cry of the downtrodden’ which the Bible usually describes using the root צעק or זעק.  In this essay, we want to examine the details of this unusual biblical theme. Our explicit goal in the discussion below is to shift the focus from the economic dimensions of the problem to the emotional-existential axis.

Thus, we’ll be examining several facets of the biblical cry.  First, we’ll want to ask who registers the cry?  We will also want to inquire what the content of this cry is. As this cry has practical ramifications, we’ll be asking who is the intended audience of the cry? Furthermore, we’ll inquire what is demanded of he who hears the cry?  And finally, we’ll be exploring the implications of the cry – what is the result of the cry?  What chain reaction does it set in motion?  These questions frame the central problems we hope to probe in some classic biblical texts we will be analyzing.


Loss of Agency and the Cry from the Void

One interesting prism with which to view any biblical phenomenon is by examining its first appearance in the Torah.  Meir Shalev takes this approach in his book Beginnings,1 where he attempts to tackle first phenomena of the Bible such as the first king of the Bible, the first laugh, the first love, and so on.  Interestingly for our purposes, he does have a chapter on the first cry, but there he analyzes a different sort of cry – the cry of בכי, which is the cry of sadness (in the English version of his book, this chapter has been translated as ‘The First Weeping’). In this essay, when we speak of the cry of the downtrodden, we are usually (but not always) referring to the roots זעק and צעק, which represent the cries of anguish, of discrimination and despair.  In this context it is thus interesting to note that the first צעקה of the universe (or at least the first one registered by the Torah) doesn’t emanate from a human source at all:

וַיֹּאמֶר מֶה עָשִׂיתָ, קוֹל דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ צֹעֲקִים אֵלַי מִן הָאֲדָמָה (בראשית ד’, י)

 [God] said: What have you done? The sound of your brother’s blood screams at me from the earth!

This is the rebuke that God offers Cain after he murdered his brother.  Remarkably, the first cry recorded in the Torah comes from the animated life-force in Hevel’s blood, which is communicating with God still after Hevel’s death.  The blood is acting as an agent on behalf of Hevel, who is so ‘downtrodden’ that he can not speak for himself.  Indeed, he is dead.  As we will see further on, a common theme of the צעקה is that it is a cry which speaks on behalf of those whose existence has been wiped away. As we will see, this is also the function of the goel hadam, the blood-avenger, who brings the murdered back to life, so to speak, by exacting revenge on his behalf.

There is a certain paradox in the eliminated making themselves present.  It could be described as the void, the ayin, wanting to make itself present in existence, in yesh.  The yesh – embodied in the living and the satiated – wants to ignore the ayin, but the ayin – that is, the scarier of more mysterious parts of existence which have been erased, keeps making itself known.  Religious systems are built on exactly this dynamic between yesh and ayin.  As R. Menachem Froman writes:

The religious perspective is not really interested in the world.  I’m willing to state this in a more extreme way – it is not interested in life, but in death.  Very few religious people I think would define it in such a way.  The ramifications of this perspective are that precisely when I envision the spiritual and attempt to live the spiritual in its purest and most extreme form, I feel in a way as though the world and life don’t matter to me and I only care about my relationship to God.  I’m not here to fix the world, to engage in tikkun olam, I’m here to worship Hashem.

On the other hand, there is the other posture which is interested in the world, which attempts to fix the world, and which sees man’s primary purpose as fixing the world and working within the world.  These two perspectives need to integrate or complement each other, and in essence my primary purpose in formulating the following thoughts is to contribute something to this discourse and explain why social activism and engaging in worldly affairs not only does not contradict religious fervor but could be its pinnacle. 2

I bring this fascinating short text only to make a side point: to point out that, notwithstanding the second posture mentioned in the text, religion naturally gravitates to the otherworldly; it reminds us of the transcendent and out-of-this-world. This includes of course the dead,3 but also the weak, the meager, and the weird.

Within the religious framework, the poor and the dead and make themselves known to the living through an act of protest, to remind the living that there is more to the world than what appears on the surface.  Insofar as the religious personality is connected to the void – to nothingness – he prefers the downtrodden and the murdered to the high and mighty, for the former represent contact with the ayin.


Muted Cries

Having discussed some existential-metaphysical dimensions of contact with the downtrodden, let us return to analyzing the biblical cry.  On the human plane, one paradoxical feature of the void/צעקה trying to make its way into existence is that the cry is simultaneously screaming loudly, yet it goes unheard.  For example, in the story of the banishment of Ishmael and Hagar, we read:

וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּקַּח לֶחֶם וְחֵמַת מַיִם וַיִּתֵּן אֶל הָגָר שָׂם עַל שִׁכְמָהּ, וְאֶת הַיֶּלֶד וַיְשַׁלְּחֶהָ, וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּתַע בְּמִדְבַּר בְּאֵר שָׁבַע. וַיִּכְלוּ הַמַּיִם מִן הַחֵמֶת, וַתַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶת הַיֶּלֶד תַּחַת אַחַד הַשִּׂיחִם. וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּשֶׁב לָהּ מִנֶּגֶד, הַרְחֵק כִּמְטַחֲוֵי קֶשֶׁת, כִּי אָמְרָה אַל אֶרְאֶה בְּמוֹת הַיָּלֶד; וַתֵּשֶׁב מִנֶּגֶד, וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ. וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת קוֹל הַנַּעַר, וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל הָגָר מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה לָּךְ הָגָר, אַל תִּירְאִי, כִּישָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם (בראשית כ”א, יד-יז).

Early next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba. When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, ‘Let me not look on as the child dies.’ And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God.4

Strangely, whereas the text records that Hagar raised her voice to cry (verse 16), the next verse records that God was receptive to the boy Ishmael’s cry.  It seems as though Torah tells this story from the perspective of Hagar – she has thrown her boy away into the bushes of the desert and can only hear her own crying.  But the angel alerts her to the cry and anguish of the child next to her whose cry she has mentally shut out to the point where she has completely wiped it from her awareness, as she says: ‘אל אראה במות הילד’ – ‘let me not look on as the child dies’. The Torah thus tells the story in a way that hides Ishmael’s cry and then abruptly reveals it, thus having us experience both the silencing of Ishmael’s cry and its sudden revelation by Hagar (and thereby conjuring the void into existence, so to speak).

Just as Hevel has been eliminated to the point where he isn’t around to execute his cry of anguish, so too Ishmael has been vanished and disempowered to the point where his cry is recorded only through the perspective of God’s ‘ears’, ears which despite everything can hear those voices which have been otherwise consigned to abandonment.  And so if we return to the question we asked in the introduction: who is the executer of the cry? The answer is nobody, or at least a nobody.  A nobody registers the cry, but God still hears it.


Cry and Covenant

One of the most striking examples of such a cry can be found in the verses describing Israel’s gradual enslavement in Egypt. If Ishmael has been erased through abandonment, and Hevel through murder, the humanity of the Israelites has been erased through slavery. This erasure can be perceived through the total erasure of names in the narrative. Moshe’s parents are referred to as ‘a man from the house of Levi and a woman from the house of Levi’ (Exodus 2:1), Pharaoh is referred to by the general names ‘Pharaoh’ (Exodus 1: 11, 19, 22, 2:15) and ‘The King of Egypt’ (Exodus 1:8, 15, 17-18, 2:23), and so too his daughter is referred to by the generic name ‘Pharaoh’s Daughter’ (Exodus 2:8-10).5  Let us contrast this anonymity with the fact that the book of Exodus is called ‘Shemot’ – ‘Names’ – because it begins with the enumeration of the names of the seventy souls who descended to Egypt.  The erasure of names in the story means to highlight that though when the Israelites immigrated over to Egypt they still had individuated names, now they are merely a collective blob of slaves. This change was accomplished by the new King of Egypt, who the Torah tells us ‘did not know Joseph’. That is, Pharaoh had no name, no common memory, and no bond to associate with the people of Israel.  Out of this existence of complete forsakenness we read:

וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם, וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן הָעֲבֹדָה וַיִּזְעָקוּ, וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים מִן הָעֲבֹדָה. וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת נַאֲקָתָם, וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּרִיתוֹ, אֶת אַבְרָהָם אֶת יִצְחָק וְאֶת-יַעֲקֹב. וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֵּדַע אֱלֹהִים (שמות ב’, כג-כה).

A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.

Within these few verses lies one of the deepest and thickest descriptions of the mechanics of anguish – and its concomitant response by God. Just as Hevel’s blood cried for him only after his death, so too the Israelites’ cry of anguish does not come during the climax of slavery, but during a respite. It seems that until that point, the Israelites had been so caught up in the labor that they did not have the space to cry out to God. This tells us that anguish is not synonymous with erasure. The cry of anguish happens in the space between erasure and existence. It happens when one who is erased, who once had a name, wants to make himself known again. Anguish needs a space within which it can be released – in this case, the space between the rule of one evil king and the next.

And so at a moment of relief, in between the reign of one Pharaoh and the next, they then sighed and cry out to God. Their cry is described as in some sense emanating from the labor (‘ותעל שועתם…מן העבדה’). As if in some way the anguish devolves on the labor, and its חלות, to use a lomdishe term, is on the labor. The Torah then tells us of a series of verbs describing God’s reactions to Israel’s cry: God heard, he remembered, he saw, and then finally he knew.

What did he know?  The text does not say.  Was it the pain?  Was it the story and process of Israel’s enslavement?  Was it some other content inherent in Israel’s cry? It actually seems that God knew of a certain totality – all at once, God knew everything. God liberated the Israelites from anonymity through listening. It’s not that the anguished want a particular thing to be known, it is they themselves that want to be known, in their names and their entirety.

Another question we should ask is what the relationship is between God’s hearing and his remembering. The text juxtaposes God’s hearing the cry –  וישמע אלקים את נאקתם with God’s remembrance of the covenant –  ויזכר אלקים את בריתו.  This points to the deep triangulation between the cry, remembrance, and covenant in biblical theology. The role of the cry is to conjure up old bonds that have since frayed. The cry recalls memories between the downtrodden and the God or society which he feels has forsaken him, as if saying: “You see me? The nobody here in the corner of society who was easily murdered or exploited.  I scream to show that I am here. I am somebody. And if you will just jog your memory you will see that we do have a connection, a deeper bond that goes beyond a particular time and place when we were close.” Once God heard that – all of which was encapsulated the wordless content of the sigh of the Israelites – he knew.

The central drama between the Israelites and God in the Bible stems from the fact that despite all the failings of the Israelites – for which he ought to have extinguished them several times – he has a special bond and history which causes him to maintain his connection of love despite their flaws.6

As we’ve seen thus far, the cry has a particular source – the anonymous person who society has consigned to invisibility.  And now we’ve seen also the cry has a particular content which is something like: ‘I am here.  Remember?’


Ignoring or Heeding the Cry

As we saw, God’s attentiveness to Ishmael’s cry stands in contrast to his mother’s neglect of the very same cry.  Returning to the story of enslavement, the Torah sets up a similar contrast between God’s attentiveness and human disregard in comparing the reaction of Pharaoh to that of God. The plight of the Israelites reaches Pharaoh directly:

וַיָּבֹאוּ שֹׁטְרֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיִּצְעֲקוּ אֶל פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר: לָמָּה תַעֲשֶׂה כֹה לַעֲבָדֶיךָ. תֶּבֶן אֵין נִתָּן לַעֲבָדֶיךָ, וּלְבֵנִים אֹמְרִים לָנוּ עֲשׂוּ, וְהִנֵּה עֲבָדֶיךָ מֻכִּים, וְחָטָאת עַמֶּךָ. וַיֹּאמֶר נִרְפִּים אַתֶּם, נִרְפִּים, עַל כֵּן אַתֶּם אֹמְרִים נֵלְכָה נִזְבְּחָה לַה’. וְעַתָּה לְכוּ עִבְדוּ, וְתֶבֶן לֹא יִנָּתֵן לָכֶם, וְתֹכֶן לְבֵנִים תִּתֵּנוּ (שמות ה’, טו-יח).

Then the foremen of the Israelites came to Pharaoh and cried: ‘Why do you deal thus with your servants? No straw is issued to your servants, yet they demand of us: Make bricks! Thus your servants are being beaten, when the fault is with your own people.’ He replied, ‘You are shirkers, shirkers! That is why you say, Let us go and sacrifice to the LoRD. Be off now to your work! No straw shall be issued to you, but you must produce your quota of bricks!’

Pharaoh here is given a direct opportunity to respond to the צעקה (the same word used in the chapter cited above which described the process of enslavement), a test which he fails.


The Oppression by the Downtrodden

Other verses in the bible prove that not only the rich and merry are liable to ignore the cry. Returning to the verses describing the enslavement of the Israelites, we learn that those in anguish might be just as likely to be insensitive:

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה. וַיְדַבֵּר ָה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. בֹּא דַבֵּר אֶל פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם, וִישַׁלַּח אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאַרְצוֹ. וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי ה’ לֵאמֹר: הֵן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי, וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה, וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם (שמות ו’, ט-יב).

But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage. The LoRD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.’ But Moses appealed to the LoRD, saying, ‘The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!’

Between the difficult labor and shortness of breath, the Israelites have lost their capacity to listen. Anguish can itself become a form of callousness. Moshe’s question to God then is – if the anguished are too distressed to hear me, how will the mighty and powerful hear me when I reach Pharaoh?

In fact, as the Torah tells us multiple times with regard to the laws of the stranger, one of the purposes of exile was to sensitize the Israelites (who are frequently described by God as a brazen chutzpadik people). It took time for the message to sink in:

וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם: אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה’ לְעֵינֵיכֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לְפַרְעֹה וּלְכָל עֲבָדָיו  וּלְכָל אַרְצוֹ. הַמַּסּוֹת הַגְּדֹלֹת אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ, הָאֹתֹת וְהַמֹּפְתִים הַגְּדֹלִים הָהֵם. וְלֹא נָתַן ה’ לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹעַ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה (דברים כ”ט, א-ג).

Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: You have seen all that the LORD did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his courtiers and to his whole country. the wondrous feats that you saw with your own eyes, those prodigious signs and marvels. Yet to this day the LoRD has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.

Here, sensitivity is described as a gradual process perhaps, but one initiated by the grace of God. We should pray that God should give us a heart to listen, ears to hear, and eyes to see.7

To summarize the traits demanded of the listener: his (or her) power should not prevent himself from being attuned and receptive, but he should also not be too weak to hear.


The Imperative to Listen

Within the Torah, the mandate to heed the cry of the downtrodden eventually becomes concretized from a narrative theme to a law:

ְגֵר לֹא תוֹנֶה וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ, כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. כָּל אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם לֹא תְעַנּוּן. אִם עַנֵּה תְעַנֶּה אֹתוֹ, כִּי אִם צָעֹק יִצְעַק אֵלַי, שָׁמֹעַ אֶשְׁמַע צַעֲקָתוֹ. וְחָרָה אַפִּי וְהָרַגְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בֶּחָרֶב, וְהָיוּ נְשֵׁיכֶם אַלְמָנוֹת וּבְנֵיכֶם יְתֹמִים (שמות כ”ב, כ-כב). 

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 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.

The Gemara brings an unusual aspect of the imperative to hear the cry of the poor:8

מתני’ כופין אותו לבנות בית שער ודלת לחצר… גמרא: למימרא דבית שער מעליותא היא? והא ההוא חסידא דהוה רגיל אליהו דהוה משתעי בהדיה, עבד בית שער ותו לא משתעי בהדיה.9

Mishna: One forces members of a common courtyard to contribute to build a security construction at the gate of the courtyard and a door to the courtyard.

Gemara: Does this mean to imply that a security construction at the gate is a positive thing?  For wasn’t there a certain pious man who was used to having Elijah the prophet visit him, and then the pious man made a security construction at the gate and Elijah ceased to visit him anymore?

What was the sin of the pious man in constructing this construction? Rashi is forcefully moralistic on this point:

רשי: גמ’ ולא אישתעי בהדיהלפי שמפסיק בעניים הצועקין, ואין קולם נשמע.

Rashi: And he would not visit him – Because the construction separates the courtyard from the poor and thus their voice is not heard.

In other words, one has to not only hear the cry of the poor where it chances upon you, one has to structure the structures of everyday life such that the uncomfortable sounds from the street seep and interfere with one’s home life. The very architecture of Jewish life has to be set up in a way that the cries of the poor will be heard. This is an example of a law mandated by the Torah in which not only does one have to be good, but one has to set up life in such a manner that one will naturally be sensitive. There cannot be a situation in which it is too hard for the cries of the poor to reach our ears. This is especially relevant in a global world in which it is much easier to obtain knowledge about what is going on in poorer neighborhoods and countries, and to find charities ranked by their effectiveness.  The cries of the poor are available to us at the click of the button. Are we listening?

The idea of requiring us not to shut out the cries of the poor echoes an idea of Levinas10 that one is elected by the circumstances which God’s chances upon oneself.  This chance morphs into responsibility.  As modern people, enamored by choice, we want to be able to control uncomfortable sounds intruding into our life.  Enclosed communities and guarded buildings are one way of controlling unwanted contact with lower castes and mitigating disgust.  The Torah therefore mandates that one not shut out the cry of anguish, which is indeed the cry of God electing us.  We can employ an insight of the Ishbitzer Rebbe to teach us a similar lesson:

ועל זה נאמר במדרש (בראשית רבה לט א) מי הוא בעל הבירה, הציץ עליו בעל הבירה. וכפי הנראה היה לו לכתוב הציץ אליו ולא עליו. אך בראות אברהם אבינו ע”ה את עסק דור הפלגה, זאת יקרא בשם בירה דולקת, כי היה בעיניו לפלא מאוד והרעים בנפשו מי ברא אלה. הציץ עליו בעל הבירה, היינו שהשיב לו הקב”ה: הלא תראה בעצמך כי לכל העולם לא יקשה, ואין אחד מהם שם על לב לאמר מי עשה זאת, ואך בעיניך יפלא. ומהרעמות לבך תוכל לשער אשר בוודאי נמצא בורא הסובל כל עלמין וממלא כל עלמין, והוא העיר לבך ונפשך לזה. וזה לשון עליו, היינו על קושייתו, שזה בעצמו הוא תירץ מספיק לפניו.11

…Hashem responded to Avraham: You can see for yourself that in the entire world no one is bothered by this and no one notices and asks “who did all this?”, but just in your eyes it is a wonder.  And from the distress that is in your heart you can imagine that there is a creator who suffers the whole world and fills the universe, and he is the one who awakened your heart and soul to this matter.  And this is why the midrash states “upon him”, meaning to say “upon his question”.

According to the Ishbitzer, God’s cry to Avraham, saying ‘Lech Lecha’ is only the record of one man responding to God’s voice.  In truth, God is eternally calling out – we might add, through the face of the beggar, which is God revealing the poverty of existence and the human situation.  Most ignore this call, but a select few are attentive.  This is God electing the select few.  This is how the Jewish people was elected by God through Abraham.

We might call the trait exhibited by Abraham sensitivity. What is sensitivity? Sensitivity is not necessarily an emotional quality; sensitivity is, in general, the ability to pick up on delicate matters. A transmitter is considered sensitive if it can receive even the weakest transmission.  It’s the ability to receive and respond. Thus Abraham’s sensitivity to pain is his ability to be awakened by the cry of God, which is pervading the entirety of existence but is still too subtle for most.


Pain and Punishment

The commandment to hear the cry of the poor which we saw above is followed by a warning:

כָּל אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם לֹא תְעַנּוּן. אִם עַנֵּה תְעַנֶּה אֹתוֹ, כִּי אִם צָעֹק יִצְעַק אֵלַי, שָׁמֹעַ אֶשְׁמַע צַעֲקָתוֹ. וְחָרָה אַפִּי וְהָרַגְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בֶּחָרֶב, וְהָיוּ נְשֵׁיכֶם אַלְמָנוֹת וּבְנֵיכֶם יְתֹמִים (שמות כ”ב כא-כב).

 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.

These verses attach a punishment to the act of ignoring anguish. The cry which Abraham heard is meant for people to hear, if God hears it first, he will wreak punishment on the bystanders.

That is what happened in Sodom:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ זַעֲקַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה כִּי רָבָּה, וְחַטָּאתָם כִּי כָבְדָה מְאֹד. אֵרְדָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ הַבָּאָה אֵלַי עָשׂוּ כָּלָה, וְאִם לֹא אֵדָעָה (בראשית י”ח, כ-כא).

Then the LoRD said, ‘The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.’

God wreaked havoc on Sodom because he was forced to descend to hear the cries of the city when no one else would. These verses are juxtaposed in the Torah in a way that contrasts the indifference of Sodom to Avraham’s way of sensitivity toward the anguished.

כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה’ לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט, לְמַעַן הָבִיא ה’ עַל אַבְרָהָם אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עָלָיו. וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ זַעֲקַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה כִּי רָבָּה… (שם, יט-כ).

For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LoRD by doing what is just and right, in order that the LoRD may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him. Then the LoRD said, ‘The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great…’


Cycles of Pain

Until now, we’ve been discussing three major topics about the cry of the poor: when it arises, what the nature of the cry is, and what is the ethical mandate of the response to the cry. Now we want to veer into its post-history – what happens in history after the cry goes unheeded? what does the cry of the poor unleash?

Above, we saw that the Torah states that the punishment for ignoring widows and orphans is that the ignorers will themselves become widows and orphans:

גֵר לֹא תוֹנֶה וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ, כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. כָּל אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם לֹא תְעַנּוּן. אִם עַנֵּה תְעַנֶּה אֹתוֹ, כִּי אִם צָעֹק יִצְעַק אֵלַי, שָׁמֹעַ אֶשְׁמַע צַעֲקָתוֹ. וְחָרָה אַפִּי וְהָרַגְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בֶּחָרֶב, וְהָיוּ נְשֵׁיכֶם אַלְמָנוֹת וּבְנֵיכֶם יְתֹמִים (שמות כ”ב, כ-כב).

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 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.

This leads us to a tragic theme of the צעקה: the unheeded צעקה is prone to create a further צעקה.

Just as the צעקה belongs to the domains of both murder and poverty, the principle of symmetrical punishment applies to the murdered in the same manner it applies to the poor. Accordingly, after the flood, God establishes a cycle of blood-vengeance.

שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם, בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ (בראשית ט, ו)

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.

Just as there is a certain irony in establishing more widows and orphans when the point is to ameliorate the pain of vulnerability and orphancy in society, so too there is an irony in mandating further bloodshed as punishment for the spilling of blood. To understand this strange cycle of violence, let’s look at the Torah’s justification for the cycle of blood:           

שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ, כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם (בראשית ט’, ו).

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; For in His image did God make man.

The measure of man in infinity demands retribution. Precisely because of the infiniteness of human value and because man is created in the image of God, bloodshed cannot go unanswered. This goes back to the idea of Hevel’s blood screaming from the earth. If the murdered were just an anonymous speck, they would not demand any response. For example, when one destroys objects or kills animals, their life-source does not demand revenge on the destroyer.12 But precisely because a human’s blood cries to God ‘I am a person. I have a face’, and God never lets these cries go unanswered, that is why blood demands blood. Blood in the bible is not material. It is animated. It is a life-force. And in this capacity it has the ability to prosecute the guilty.

The theme of blood’s potency should remind us of Hevel’s murder at the hands of Cain. It reminds us of how Hevel’s wounded blood screamed to God from the earth. It would seem from other passages that not only the blood acted as Hevel’s agent, but that the earth also acts on behalf of the murdered. For example, take this verse from the passage in the Torah on the blood avenger:

וְלֹא תַחֲנִיפוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּהּ, כִּי הַדָּם הוּא יַחֲנִיף אֶת הָאָרֶץ, וְלָאָרֶץ לֹא יְכֻפַּר לַדָּם אֲשֶׁר שֻׁפַּךְ בָּהּ כִּי אִם בְּדַם שֹׁפְכוֹ (במדבר ל”ה, לג).

You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.

In fact, many passages in the Bible attest to the fact that the Land of Israel refuses to tolerate a whole host of iniquities, one of which, of course, is bloodshed. A crucial aspect of inheriting the land is the blood morality of those who dwell in Israel, and in the Torah’s eyes this means that spilt blood must not remain anonymous and unanswered.

Let us analyze the verse quoted above. The word יחניף in the verse connotes pollution, whereas the word יכופר in the same verse connotes cleanliness. So ironically, the Torah is saying that the stain of blood can only be cleansed by blood. If this is the case – how can the cycle of blood ever be completed? The Gemara alludes to an endless cycle of murder in the following explanation of the unwitting murder (unwitting murder being the source in the Torah for the goel hadam):

רבי שמעון בן לקיש פתח לה פתחא להאי פרשתא מהכא (שמות כא, יג): ‘ואשר לא צדה, והאלהים אנה לידו’ וגו’. ‘כאשר יאמר משל הקדמוני: מרשעים יצא רשע’ וגו’ (שמואל א כ”ד, יד), במה הכתוב מדבר? בשני בני אדם שהרגו את הנפש, אחד הרג בשוגג ואחד הרג במזיד. לזה אין עדים, ולזה אין עדים. הקדוש ברוך הוא מזמינן לפונדק אחד, זה שהרג במזיד יושב תחת הסולם, וזה שהרג בשוגג יורד בסולם ונפל עליו והרגו. זה שהרג במזיד נהרג, וזה שהרג בשוגג גולה.13

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish introduced this portion with an introduction from here: It is stated with regard to an unintentional murderer: ‘And one who did not lie in wait, but God caused it to come to his hand, and I will appoint you a place where he may flee’ (Exodus 21:13). Now this is puzzling. Why would God cause one to sin in this manner? The verse states: ‘As the ancient parable says: From the wicked comes forth wickedness’ (I Samuel 24:13). Evil incidents befall those who have already sinned. Reish Lakish explains: In this light, the verse ‘But God caused it to come to his hand’ may be understood. With regard to what scenario is the verse speaking? It is with regard to two people who killed a person, where one killed unintentionally while the other killed intentionally. For this person there are no witnesses to his action, and for that person there are no witnesses to his action; therefore, neither received the appropriate punishment of exile and execution, respectively. The Holy One, Blessed be He, summons them to one inn. This person who killed intentionally sits beneath a ladder, and that person who killed unintentionally descends the ladder, and he falls upon him and kills him. There were witnesses to that incident and therefore, that person who killed intentionally is killed, and that person who killed unintentionally is exiled, each receiving what he deserved.14

Thus, the tragedy of spilt blood is that it is always unfinished business. By the force of circumstance, God elects the רוצח בשוגג to murder the רוצח המזיד. He then elects the relative of the one murdered by theרוצח בשוגג to kill his murderer. The Torah describes the motive of the גואל הדם in the following manner:

            פֶּן יִרְדֹּף גֹּאֵל הַדָּם אַחֲרֵי הָרֹצֵחַ כִּי יֵחַם לְבָבוֹ וְהִשִּׂיגוֹ כִּי יִרְבֶּה הַדֶּרֶךְ וְהִכָּהוּ נָפֶשׁ (דברים י”ט, ו).

Lest the goel hadam chase the murderer, since his heart is boiling….

The גואל הדם is propelled to action because his blood is churning. He has unfinished anger which won’t be quieted until he kills the murderer. But this in turn will probably cause someone else’s blood to become ‘heated’.

The midrash picks up on the idea that the cycle of theצעקה  demands further response in a truly amazing way:

כשמע עשו את דברי אביו ויצעק צעקה גדולה ומרה וגו’. אמר ר’ חנינה: כל מי שאומר הקדוש ברוך הוא וותרן הוא יתוותרון מעוי, אלא מוריך רוחיה וגבי דידיה, זעקה אחת הזעיק יעקב לעשו, ואיכן נפרע לו – בשושן הבירה, שנאמר ויזעק זעקה גדולה ומרה וגו’ (אסתר ד א).15

‘As Esav heard his father’s words, he let out a huge and bitter cry’. R. Hanina said: Whoever says that God is carefree let his guts unravel freely. Rather he holds his breath and eventually collects his dues. Thus Jacob caused Esav to release one scream and where were the dues paid on this scream? In Shushan, [in the story of Purim]. As it says ‘[Mordechai] let out a huge and bitter cry’.

Given the fact that God invariably answers the זעקה when people refuse to do so, the midrash wonders what the retribution was for Esav’s anguish at the hands of Jacob (an anguish which has troubled many modern readers, though the Jewish tradition usually defends Jacob’s action). The midrash picks up on the fact that Esav’s great bitter cry (‘צעקה גדולה ומרה’) is nearly identical to Mordechai’s bitter cry in the book of Esther (‘זעקה גדולה ומרה’).f16  It thus makes sense to see this as another cycle of anguish.  To the midrash, letting go of Esav’s anguish would mean that God is carefree or blithe.  This teaches us a feature of the Jewish God which we discussed earlier. God remembers.  He holds on.  In this sense, he is like the blood-avenger – it is wrong to just “let things go” when dealing with entities of infinite worth.

Similarly, regarding the episode of the banishment of Hagar and her cry to God which we analyzed earlier, the Ramban says:

חטאה אמנו בענוי הזה, וגם אברהם בהניחו לעשות כן, ושמע ה’ אל עניה ונתן לה בן שיהא פרא אדם לענות זרע אברהם ושרה בכל מיני הענוי.17

Our mother sinned in this oppression, and also Abraham in permitting her to do so. And Hashem heard her [Hagar’s] oppression and gave her a son who would be a wild ass of a man to oppress the descendants of Abraham and Sarah in all kinds of oppression.

Like the midrash above, this source has no qualms about attributing at least some of the oppressive cycle to our own forefathers. In this source, the Ramban seems to be saying that even Ishmaelite callousness has its source in a cycle begun earlier by our mother Sarah. This theory is taken even farther by Yair Zakovitch,18 who claims that the parallelisms between the banishment of Ishmael and the suffering in Egypt show that Egyptian enslavement by Pharaoh is a punishment for the banishment of Hagar (the Egyptian) and Ishmael (who married an Egyptian), which means that even the enslavement in Egypt is another part of the successive cycle of suffering, begun in this case, by the forefathers of Israel. It seems as though in the human tragedy of the cycle of suffering, one can always find an antecedent, as suffering begets suffering as old as humanity itself.



The starting point for this essay was a question about economics – about the cry of the poor.  However, for the Bible, as we saw, money is more than money.  It is about the emotions that surround money.  And these emotions pervade much more than just money.  The דל – or the downtrodden – include among others the banished and the murdered, which are easily universalized to all kinds of human vulnerability that we encounter in our own lives.  Consequently, the theme of ‘the downtrodden’ leads us to deal with questions of hierarchy and power relations, questions of anguish and of the gaps and voids that separate people from one another.

We saw that the cry of the poor is a response to elimination, granting the crier a sort of agency.  It is an act of protest.  It is the void crying itself out into existence.  Its goal is to put a name and a face on the eliminated. The cry has two possible audiences: God and man.  The consequences are much different depending on whether it is God or man who heeds the call of the poor.  Listening is an act of attunement and sensitivity.  It is grounded in concrete law, which includes the mandate to structure one’s life so as to hear the call.

In the final section of this paper we took an interesting turn. Most articles begin with a question and gradually hone in on a solution.  But whereas the first sections of the present article started to answer some of the questions we posed at the outset, the last section which discussed the cycles of pain borne out by the cry has less of a clear moral to offer us.  In fact, by stating that the cry of the poor is almost a fatalistic cycle of pain, one could argue that in contrast to the previous sections, the last part of this article actually makes almost an amoral argument for defeatism.  Whereas, the former parts call us into lofty action, the final parts of the article are meant for us look on at the cycle of human tragedy with compassion.  There may or may not be an answer to the cry of the poor, but perhaps, in view of all the suffering, we can listen a little bit better.


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