The Torah in Parashat Mishpatim (22:21) introduces the prohibition against causing distress to widows and orphans: “Kol almana ve-yatom lo te’anun.” Rashi, citing the Mekhilta, clarifies that this prohibition in fact applies not only to widows and orphans, but to all people. The Torah here forbids causing people distress, and it mentions the specific cases of widows and orphans because they are generally more vulnerable and thus more easily taken advantage of.
The Mekhilta also observes that the Torah uses the seemingly redundant expression “anei te’aneh” in discussing this prohibition, and it explains that these two terms refer to “inui merubeh” and “inui mu’at.” Meaning, the Torah forbids causing “great” distress as well as “minor” distress.
To illustrate this point, the Mekhilta tells the tragic story of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yishmael Kohen Gadol, who were being led by the Roman authorities to their execution. Rabbi Shimon wondered what transgression he might have violated for which he deserved this fate, and Rabbi Yishmael asked him if perhaps he ever made somebody who approached him with a question wait until he finished drinking, putting on his shoes or donning his cloak. Rabbi Yishmael noted that the Torah warns of grave punishment even for “inui mu’at” – causing people slight distress – and thus rabbis, who are often approached with questions, are prone to transgressing this prohibition if they make people wait unnecessarily. As such, Rabbi Yishmael suggested that although Rabbi Shimon was truly righteous, it was possible that he fell prey to this common pitfall of rabbinic service, inconveniencing those who come for guidance.
This story is striking on several levels, but perhaps most importantly, it teaches us of the care we must take not to unnecessarily cause other people even minor inconveniences. Chazal here warn that even making people wait a few moments for no valid reason violates, on some level, the prohibition of “lo te’anun.” If we are the cause of people’s lives becoming a bit more difficult or complicated, and we could have avoided this consequence, then we are guilty of this prohibition.
One unfortunately common example of this form of “distress” is showing up late to meetings and appointments. Of course, often this happens due to circumstances that were unforeseen or beyond our control, or an understandable miscalculation of the amount of travel time needed. But there are also situations when we arrive late simply due to negligence, because we did not take the trouble to plan properly. Chazal teach that the Torah’s frightening warning in Parashat Mishpatim of the grave consequences of causing distress to widows and orphans can apply even to causing any person minor inconvenience. While mistakes are bound to happen and many situations lie beyond our control, we must try to pay close attention to all our interpersonal affairs to ensure, as much as reasonably possible, that people are not unnecessarily inconvenienced on our account.