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Now that the Aseret HaDibrot has concluded, now that both parties have agreed to form a covenant with one another, the details of that agreement may be shared and studied. This, of course, is where our parsha begins. “And these are the laws that you must place before them,” G-d tells Moshe. In Rashi’s words, Moshe must teach the Children of Israel so well that the laws will be “like a table set and ready for eating in front of a person.”

What law would you imagine should come first as Moshe guides, molds, and teaches a society of individuals and communities who will approach such excellence that they might represent G-d in this world? The laws of marriage and parenting? The study of Torah? The laws of courts?


Instead, the first law is that of the Hebrew slave:

“If you buy a Hebrew slave, he will work for six years. In the seventh year, he shall go free for nothing.”

The law addresses the case of one of our brethren who falls on hard times and is sold into slavery to pay his debts. What do we learn of this man? He is to be a slave for six years, and no more. At that time, he should go free. If he does not, his master takes him to the court and pierces his ear there.

Why, out of all six hundred and thirteen commandments, is this the first law we must study? Would not the laws of gossip and character, sanctity and Shabbat, or so many other things have proved to be better candidates? Why, of all things, this piece of instruction?

Rabbi Menachem B. Sacks, of blessed memory, a prominent Chicago area rabbi in the previous century explains in his excellent compendium of drashot, “Menachem Tzion,” that G-d wishes “to teach us that liberty, freedom, and independence are the foundation of the structure that is Judaism.”

Consider: we do not just learn here that there is an institution of Hebrew slavery. Rather, we learn that the slave must go free. If he demands further slavery, we protest – and publicly so – by taking him to the court and piercing his ear (Ex. 21:5-6). We tell our children, that cannot be you! You may fall on hard times, yes, but never choose to be a slave. You are free, independent, made in the image of G-d with the ability to choose how you will live, even how you will endure slavery, suffering, and the painful struggles that we all must endure and overcome. The law of dignity, independence, and personal responsibility comes first, before all else.

Indeed, as the Rabbis teach us in the Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael, the laws of the Hebrew slave wish to emphasize the need to respect the Hebrew slave even as he suffers through the most painful indignity of the temporary loss of freedom:

For six years he must work. Shall I conclude that any kind of work is implied?[To counter], the Torah teaches us, “You will not work him in a slave-like manner.” From here they concluded the slave should not wash his (master’s) feet; he should not tie his shoes; he should not carry his clothing to the bathhouse… you may not force him to change his career.

This halacha teaches us that the eved Ivri must not be treated with momentary indignity. In fact, he must be allowed to continue in his chosen career, whether that be investment banking or phlebotomy. It is the hope of this law that he should flourish doing what he is best at, or what he aspires to accomplish.

So, then, this is what we learned first:

No matter what we are going through, even at our lowest points, we are free and independent, made in the image of G-d. Halacha teaches us to see ourselves and others that way. We cannot boss around our children or employees; instead, we respect that the image of G-d resides within them. Likewise, if someone treats us with less than complete respect, makes light of us or our needs, or even pushes us around, G-d forbid, then we come back to our parsha to remind ourselves of who we are. We may, for the time being, find ourselves at the low end of the totem pole. Yet, our quality and value as human beings remain inviolate.

Whatever the challenge, Hashem teaches us our dignity is intact, our freedom available. We only read Parshat Mishpatim for a reminder.


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Yitzchak Sprung is the Rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOSH). Visit our facebook page or to learn about our amazing community. Find Rabbi Sprung’s podcast, the Parsha Pick-Me-Up, wherever podcasts are found.