Weekly Torah Commentary — Mishpatim February 17, 2012

The opening verse of this week’s Torah reading alerts us that a transition is happening. Up til now, the Torah has been primarily narrative, informing and explaining to us the stories of the patriarchs, the slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, etc. This week, the Torah shifts to outlining the mitzvot which Hashem gives to Israel. In fact, in this parsha there are 53 commandments. Only one other parsha has more, Ki Tetzei in the last book of the Torah, Devarim, has 74.

Hashem tells Moshe, “And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them…” This short verse contains a very important message about the commandments. It is not enough to teach people what to do without explaining to them the deeper reasons and ideas contained within the Torah’s instructions. Human beings seek purpose, relevance and direction in life. A rote, uninspired presentation of Torah leaves a person ‘cold’; simple lists of do’s and don’ts with no inspiration or motivation turns people off and causes them to stray from the path of Torah to seek meaning elsewhere. Hashem’s Torah is meant to be a spiritual feast, a banqueting table of food for a meaningful and fulfilling life.

Continuing to the next verse, we find something quite surprising. Given that the Children of Israel have just been delivered from slavery with miracles, we would expect the Torah to abolish slavery in no uncertain terms. However, in the very next verse we read the guidelines that must be observed if a Hebrew purchases another Hebrew to be his slave. What !?!?!? How are we to understand this??

There is no doubt that the value system of the Torah disapproves of arbitrary power of one human being over another human being. Even Hashem Himself did not — and does not — coerce people into embracing His Torah. We choose to do so. Why then does this perplexing verse appear at this juncture?

Our Creator knows well that people can change but that inner change takes time. A fundamental principle of our relationship with Him is that He does not force us to change faster than we choose to of our own free will. In context, Hashem is dealing with a nation of ex-slaves who have only been ‘free’ for three months after more than 200 years of enslavement. As the old saying goes, ‘you can take the slave out of Egypt but it is something else to take Egypt out of the slave.’

Therefore, this commandment does not abolish slavery in one instant BUT it does set into motion a series of instructions designed to lead His people to do away with slavery of their own accord. Look at verses 2-6 in chapter 21 of Shemot/Exodus.

1) Slavery is to be no longer a permanent position but is now a temporary situation, lasting no more than 6 years. In the 7th year, the slave must go free.
2) Freedom comes not because of the benevolence of the master, but by Divine Command.
3) If the slave refuses to go free, the master is to pierce his ear at the doorpost, publicly. Why?
The ear that heard Hashem’s voice at Sinai knows that slavery is not what Hashem wants for His people, that each Jew is a servant of Hashem, that to enslave oneself to another human being is to fall short of Hashem’s will. Therefore, the ‘slave by choice’ will carry a physical reminder that he has chosen less than Hashem’s will for his life. In effect, Hashem is saying to this ‘slave by choice’, “For whatever reason you are not ready to accept freedom, I give you six (or more) years to deal with your inner issues, confront your fears or insecurities, and prepare yourself for freedom because in the end, you will be free.”

Ah, but you say, it says that the person who has his ear pierced will be a slave ‘forever’. What do you mean, six or more years?

The Torah can never contradict itself. Later in the Torah, we read about the Year of Jubilee when everyone must return to his family, his home, etc. The ‘slave by choice’ remains in that state ONLY until the Jubilee Year. Then he MUST go free regardless. So if he chooses to remain a slave after the first 6 years, and there are yet another 39 years or 27 years or 19 years until the next Jubilee year, the Torah is saying that it is ‘like’ forever.

This commandment brings up an important issue that is as relevant today as it was then, and it is this:

Not every slave wants to go free. We see it in the children of Israel who wanted to go back to the “garlic, the leeks and the onions…” of Egypt.

The truth is that internal slavery is the most insidious of all. We enslave ourselves to “what other people think about me”, to appearance, to ‘image’, to negativity, to fear, to jealousy and envy, to all manner of thinking that paralyzes our ability to grow in maturity, holiness and righteousness. This week’s parsha calls us to ask ourselves who or what enslaves us? And…is there anyone that we ‘enslave’ with our prejudice, attitude or opinion?

The fear of freedom is a fear of accountability because Freedom, while giving us a sense of independence, also makes us feel insecure if we are unwilling to take full responsibility for ourselves, our decisions and our lifestyle. Some people find it just too stressful to think for themselves!

In the morning Blessings prayed by devout Jews each day, we bless Hashem “for not making me a slave” and later in the Blessings, we bless Him for “releasing the imprisoned.” Why are both of these blessings contained within the same prayer? Because though Hashem did not create us to be slaves, we enslave ourselves by our thinking and attitudes and therefore, we need to bless Him as the One who releases all who are imprisoned, beginning with ourselves.

In Tune with Torah this week= summon up the courage to face any and every way of thinking within you that enslaves you in some degree or other and choose this day to move from slavery to the freedom of a child of Hashem. Resolve to take practical, doable steps towards the freedom Hashem desires for you.

Shabbat Shalom

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