The Israelites have just been freed from slavery in Egypt, and the first thing that happens is that they receive many, many laws. One understanding of this is that it is not only that the Israelites were freed FROM slavery, but that they were freed in order TO live lives filled with holiness.
One of the laws given in parashat Mishpatim, is that one should not afflict any widow or orphan – כל אלמנה ויתום לא תענון. Widows and orphans, of course, represent(ed) the most vulnerable members of a society. We are taught that even those who have no one to stand up for them are not to be ill-treated.
Ibn Ezra, a medieval commentator, goes a step further saying that לא תענון is written in the plural to stress the warning that not only those who torment the widow and the orphan will be punished. It is also those who stand by the sidelines and do not intervene who will be considered as if they themselves had done the tormenting and will be punished as well. (more…)