Lamentations: First Kinah – Line 29-30
“The elders are gone from the gate because they twisted the judgment of the orphans and the widow.” Meloh Ha’Omer: The gate refers to those Leviim who were too old to sing in the Beit Hamikdash and were assigned to be gatekeepers. Once the Temple was destroyed there was no longer a need for the elders to be at the gates.
Rambam, Hilchot Deiot, chapter 6, Halachah 10 “A person must be especially heedful of his behavior towards widows and orphans for their souls are exceedingly depressed and their spirits low. Even if they are wealthy, even if they are widows and orphans of a king we are specifically enjoined concerning them, as it is said, ‘You shall not afflict a widow or fatherless child.’ How are we to conduct ourselves towards them? One must not speak to them otherwise than tenderly. One must show them unvarying courtesy; not hurt them physically with hard toil, nor wound their feelings with harsh speech. One must take greater care of their property than of one’s own. Whoever irritates them, provokes them to anger, pains them, tyrannizes over them, or causes them loss of money, is guilty of a transgression and still more so, if one beats them or curses them…its punishment is explicitly set forth in the Torah, ‘My wrath shall wax hot, and I will slay you with the sword.’
The function of the elders is to sit in the gate, meaning to guide the entire city, and to teach and enforce every detail of the law. The leaders of a community have increased responsibility towards widows and orphans. This is true, as the Rambam said, even if they are wealthy, even if they are the widow or orphan of a king. The Torah demands higher levels of sensitivity toward others than we can imagine. The leaders must train the community in this sensitivity. When they fail, they disappear.