The Torah in Parashat Mishpatim addresses the case of a lender who granted a loan to a pauper, and took his garment as security. Although the lender wants to keep this garment to ensure that the debt will be repaid, the Torah requires him to return the garment to the pauper by sundown each day, explaining, “For it is his garment for his skin – what shall he sleep with? – and if he cries out to Me, I will hear [his cries], for I am compassionate” (22:26).
The final clause of this verse – “if he cries out to Me, I will hear…” – is likely a warning to the lender of the repercussions of his insistence on keeping the pauper’s garment with him overnight. Earlier (22:22-23), the Torah issues a similar warning to those who take advantage of widows and orphans who have no husband or father to protect them, assuring that if the victim cries out to God, He will harshly punish the guilty party: “My rage shall be incensed, and I will kill you by the sword, such that your wives will be widows, and your children, orphans.” It appears that here, too, even though the lender is, technically speaking, fully entitled to demand collateral and keep the garment with him until the loan is repaid, God will respond harshly to his cruel refusal to return the garment to the pauper at night so he can be warm. Ibn Ezra adds that just as in the case of the widow or orphan, where God warns that He will turn the guilty individual’s wife into a widow and his children into orphans, similarly, in this instance, God warns that He will make the lender impoverished such that he will need to rely on loans and charity.
Significantly, God concludes His warning by noting His attribute of compassion: “I will hear [his cries], for I am compassionate.” The simple meaning of this phrase, seemingly, is that God will pity this impoverished pauper who is cold at night because he was forced to surrender his garment or blanket to the lender, and will thus act to punish the lender. Indeed, the Rashbam explains that although the pauper does not have a legally valid claim against the lender, nevertheless, God’s infinite compassion for people’s suffering will not allow Him to ignore the pauper’s plight.
The Ramban, however, explains differently. He writes that the lender might justify his cruelty on the basis of the pauper’s character and conduct. Unless the borrower is an especially righteous person, the lender might think, there is no reason to fear God’s reaction. If the pauper was righteous, then the lender is more likely to go beyond the strict letter of the law and return the collateral, figuring that God will act on the pious borrower’s behalf. But otherwise, the lender might assume that the borrower does not deserve such generosity, and God does not demand that he go this far, especially after he already agreed to grant the pauper a loan. God therefore warns the lender, “I will hear [his cries], for I am compassionate” – that He will hear the cries of any borrower in this situation, regardless of his level of piety. In the Ramban’s words, “I am compassionate, and I hear the cry of everyone who pleads to Me.”
According to the Ramban, then, the Torah here demands that we extend ourselves for the sake of people in dire straits regardless of whether we consider them worthy of our assistance. God Himself is compassionate “to everyone who pleads” to Him, even if they are not especially righteous, and so we, too, must show compassion to all who need help, without arrogantly trying to determine on our own whether they deserve our compassion. When our help is needed, we must offer it, following the example set for us by the Almighty Himself.