Parashat Mishpatim

By Yonatan Sinclair 

Former Shaliach (Cape Town, 2004-05)
Currently Head of Hachshara Department, World Bnei Akiva

Parashat Mishpatim opens with the laws dealing with a Hebrew slave – Eved Ivri. If we read the verses carefully we see that there are no actual laws dealing with the treatment of the slave during his time in servitude; the sole focus is on when and how the slave will be freed. I believe that the Torah laying out in front of us the foundations for a just and free society.

This point is strengthened in the Haftara. Jeremiah has just warned the people to free their slaves, and the people obey (whether it is because they wanted to listen to Jeremiah or because at the time, during the war with Babylon, it was better to have the strong young men as soldiers rather than slaves is a separate discussion) but as soon as the threat from the Babylonian army disappears the people take back their slaves, and to this Jeremiah reacts so strongly he promises the people “Lo! I proclaim your release, declares the LORD, to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine; and I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth… Their carcasses shall become food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth” (Jeremiah 34,17-20) The sin of not fulfilling the Mitzva of “Shiluach avadim” – setting your slaves free, is punished by destruction.

I believe this is also connected with another pasuk in the Torah – “Vayareu otanu Hamizryim Vayanun” – “And the Egyptians made us bad” (Dvarim 26:6) made us bad? It should have said – did bad to us, what does it mean made us bad?
One explanation is that Am Yisrael in Egypt became themselves slave owners (based on the midrash to “Shmot” 6:13) it is understood that owning slaves made us bad people. Why?
To own someone else, to have such power over someone else means that we ourselves are taking away someone else’s freedom. We ourselves are enjoying control and domination over someone else’s body, and the way from owning somebody to abusing them – “im ane taane oto” – If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me” (Shmot 24,24), is very short.
The Torah is sending us a clear message – if you want to be an “Am Segula”, a chosen nation, you must start by diminishing your power over others, you must start by making sure that you do not put yourselves in situations where for your own benefit you might come to cause pain and mistreatment to others. Put others before yourself – that is the foundation for building a truly free nation, a foundation crucial for a nation who has just themselves come out of bondage and are looking to build a new and free society.
If we do not understand this principle, then like in the times of Jeremiah, we are headed towards destruction; The Midrash in Mechilta Derabbi Yishmael teaches us: When R’ Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon were being led to their death R’ Shimon asks R’ Yishmael why he deserved the death sentence? R’ Yishmael encourages him to think of a case when he might have ever “mistreated” anyone – when someone came to him for judgement and he made them wait till he finished his drink of water or till he put on his shoes, and then R’ Shimon’s mind is put to rest and he accepts his sentence”. The midrash sends us a very clear message – any sort of mistreatment – the worst case being owning slaves, and the lightest making someone wait till we finish our glass of water, is a grave sin, that undercuts our foundation as a free and just society.

Let us use Mishpatim’s message about “shiluach avadim”, setting slaves free, and examine our own actions – are we mistreating anyone? are we putting ourselves before others?

Shabbat Shalom! 

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