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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Parashat Mishpatim - the Haftara

Parashat Mishpatim – the Haftara
2Kings 12:1 – 2:17
Reading date: 21st February 2009 – 27th Shvat 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text
The word which came to Jeremiah from Adonai after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim liberty [dror] among them -- that everyone should set free his Hebrew slaves, both male and female, and that no one should keep his fellow Judean enslaved. Everyone, officials and people, who had entered into the covenant agreed to set their male and female slaves free and not keep them enslaved any longer; they complied and let them go. But afterward they turned about and brought back the men and women they had set free, and forced them into slavery again.
Jeremiah 34: 8-11

Whether or not we are slaves is dependent on whether we believe YHVH is One.
Parashat Mishpatim begins with a collection of laws scholars call the 'Book of the Covenant.' The Rabbis identify 53 different mitzvot in this parasha. The first set of rules, or laws, (in Hebrew mishpatim) that immediately follows the giving of the Ten Commandments concerns the treatment of slaves. It is difficult for us today to understand the position of the 'eved,' as the term can refer to slaves, household help, or even an expression of modesty or submission (as in Adonai's servant). The Torah distinguishes between a gentile slave, usually captured in wartime and whose slave status was permanent, and a Hebrew slave, who was temporarily indentured, usually to pay off a debt, and who retained more rights.

Jeremiah lived during the reign of King Josiah who restored the Temple order and instituted religious reforms after finding an ancient scroll believed to be the book of Deuteronomy. Some scholars identify Jeremiah as the author of the book of Deuteronomy. The Kingdom of Judah was caught in the crossfire between the superpowers of Egypt to the south and the Babylonians in the North. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already been destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 BCE. Egypt marched through the land of Israel to attack Babylonia, and enroute battled with the Israelites at Megiddo, killing Josiah. The Egyptians however were defeated by Nebuchadnezzar in 605 BCE, and Jerusalem came under Nebuchadnezzar's rule. In 586 BCE Jerusalem was razed and the Temple destroyed. The religious and political elite were exiled to Babylonia, but a remnant of the Jewish population fled to Egypt and took Jeremiah with them.
It seems a little surprising that after the lofty pronouncements at Mount Sinai, the Torah turns its attention to the mundane and prosaic matter of judicial and civil legislation. Being 'religious' isn't about theological and philosophical contemplation, but the actual application of how we treat one another. Still, of all the laws that the Torah could begin with, it strikes the commentators as odd that the Torah would choose to spell out the obligations to having slaves! It would have been more logical to begin with the establishment of the judicial system and the appointment of judges.

The Ramban suggests that our Parasha parallels the opening of the Decalogue: "I am Adonai your God who took you out of slavery..." (Ex. 20:2) Others suggest that YHVH begins with this law as the Israelites would relate to it- as they themselves knew what it was like to be slaves. But having been slaves can backfire; it is also possible that the Israelites would be cruel slave masters, as a psychological release against their own oppression. (Otherwise everyone who has been oppressed or mistreated would be a kinder, gentler individual- something we know isn't true). But this is, of course, what makes the law so surprising: why wouldn't the Torah prohibit slavery outright?

We all like to think that we are free, but in reality, we are enslaved to many things. The Hebrew root of eved is used in the Torah to mean to 'work' or to 'serve.' In David Moss’ magnificent Haggada for Pesach, he begins with an illuminated papercut page. On the first side, we see a series of illustrations of the Israelites in Egypt: mixing the mud and straw, forming the bricks, and baking them in the oven. Surrounding the papercut in micrography (tiny Hebrew lettering) are several verses with the root eved (describing the slavery of the Israelites). But when you turn the page, the same outlines (remember, this is a papercut!) now illustrate the Israelites getting ready for Passover, grinding the wheat into flour, mixing the dough and baking the matzvah. Now, around this page are again a series of verses with the root eved, but this time with the meaning of 'worship' and serving YHVH. It is a brilliant midrash; in the turn of a page, the Israelites' bondage is transformed into the service of YHVH.

The medieval commentator Alshich would agree with Moss in contrasting human servitude with serving YHVH. He points out that the text says, "If you acquire a Hebrew eved..." but isn't the person an eved only after he has been acquired? Why then is he already referred to as an eved? Alshich answers his own question: that this is a subtle reminder to the owner that the person is already a servant to another master, i.e. to the Master of the World.

The word avadim (slaves) is almost identical to ivrim (Hebrews). The only difference is the tiniest stroke that differentiates the Hebrew letters 'dalet' and 'reish.' In the Shema, the 'dalet' of the word 'echad' is enlarged precisely to avoid confusion of this same difference between 'echad' (one) and 'acher' (other). The question of whether YHVH is one or not seems unrelated to our discussion of slavery. Whether we see ourselves in a relationship with YHVH or not seems irrelevant. But this slightest distinction determines the fundamental and essential quality to our freedom.

Shabbat Shalom

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