Torah reading: Exodus 21-24
Haftorah reading: Jeremiah 34:8-22, 33:25-26
This week’s haftorah reading is directly related to the first verse of the Torah reading in Exodus 21, in which God commands that anyone who has a Hebrew slave must grant him freedom after six years and send him away with provision that will enable him to begin a new life.
The words in Hebrew translated as ‘Hebrew slave’ are eved ivri, which literally means a Hebrew worker or employee, not a ‘slave’ in the context of that word in modern thinking. In ancient times, someone who had a debt they could not re-pay would voluntarily ‘work off their debt’ by serving in the household of the one to whom they owed the money. In the Torah, God made clear that no one was to be such an eved ivri for more than six years and in fact, when the master released the worker, he was to provide him with whatever was needed for the newly freed servant to establish a new life. The fundamental concept is that we are always to treat others with dignity, even and especially if they have fallen on hard times.
Fast forward to today’s haftorah:
“The word that came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, after that the king Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people that were at Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty unto them; that every man should let his man-servant, and every man his maid-servant, that is a Hebrew or a Hebrewess, go free; that none should make bondmen of them, of a Jew his brother. And all the princes and all the people obeyed, that had entered into the covenant, that everyone should let his man-servant, and everyone his maid-servant, go free, that none should make bondmen of them any more; they obeyed, and let them go. But those owners changed their minds and forced their former servants back into slavery.“ Jeremiah 34:8-9
Jeremiah addresses a situation in the Jerusalem of his day in which the population conducted a hypocritical ceremony of emancipation of their household servants only to re-‘enslave’ them shortly afterward. God was outraged at such behavior and considered it treacherous and shameless, particularly because those who did so were themselves descendants of slaves that God Himself undertook to deliver from Egypt in a miraculous way. He commanded in the Torah that His people were to be ‘holy as He is holy’ and to treat one’s fellowman as He treated them.
Therefore, the punishment inflicted upon them was justly deserved.
What made the peoples’ sin even worse was that they broke a covenant. To break a covenant was a grievous sin – and still is. Therefore, the people suffered the consequence.
This reading reminds us that every decision has consequences not only for ourselves but for those around us. And the decisions we make regarding how we treat each other are particularly important to God.
Has God been merciful to you when you needed mercy? Yes. Then in turn you are to be merciful towards those in need, towards those who have offended you, towards those who disagree with you.
Has God been good to you? Yes. Then in turn you are to show goodness and kindness towards others. It should be the natural result of your own awareness of God’s kindness towards you?
Has God been patient with you? We can all say a resounding ‘Yes’! Then it behooves us to learn patience in dealing with those around us, as the proper expression of gratitude to the LORD for His patience with us.
This is the lesson the Israelites had not learned and therefore, they paid the consequence.
The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I myself made a covenant with your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying, ‘At the end of seven years each of you must set free the fellow Hebrew who has been sold to you and has served you six years; you must set him free from your service’. But your fathers did not listen to Me or incline their ears to Me. You recently repented and did was what right in My eyes by proclaiming liberty, each to his neighbor, and you made a covenant before Me in the house that is called by My name. But then you turned around and profaned My name when each of you took back his male and female servants, whom you had set free according to their desire and you brought them back into subjection. Therefore, thus says the LORD: You have not obeyed Me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbor. Behold, I proclaim to you liberty to the sword, to pestilence and to famine, declares the LORD. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. Jeremiah 34:12 -16
God did not take lightly the fact that the people promised ‘in the house that is called by My name’ to obey the Word of the LORD and then almost immediately, took it back. It was a mockery and an insult to His holiness and God took it personally.
He still does.
When we mistreat others in violation of His commandment that we are to love one another, it is grievous to the heart of our heavenly Father. When we make a promise to Him and then ignore or dismiss it, it is grievous to the heart of our heavenly Father.
At least two questions arise out of this passage. 1) Am I treating others with the same kindness with which God treats me? 2) Am I a person of my word? When I make a promise, do I keep it?
The answers to those questions are supremely important to our God.