In last week’s Parasha, after the children of Israel had been led out of institutionalized slavery in Egypt—they received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.
In this Parasha, Mishpatim, Israel receives the code of civil laws, which are to govern their lives. It opens with the conjunction “and,” which links these civil laws to the Ten Commandments that preceded them.
Those commandments deal with our relationship with God and our relationship with each other.
Judaism is not just about religious practice. We see immediately in Mishpatim that God wants to be involved in our relationships.
The Humane Treatment of Slaves
The presentation of Jewish civil law, which pertains to personal damages, lending, manslaughter, kidnapping, etc., begins with the laws concerning slavery.
God perhaps begins with slavery because slavery had been Israel’s primary national experience. It was etched into the very fabric of their being.
Although slavery and indentured servitude is repulsive to most of us today, at that time, it was a widely accepted practice, and God desired to place in its proper perspective.
In that day, slavery could be beneficial or harmful, depending upon the nation where it was instituted and the character of the slave owner.
Indeed, a slave owner who followed the Torah would be much more considerate of the welfare of their slaves than many employers who dishonor and disrespect their employees, as though they are invaluable and disposable.
This law pertained even to the eved ivri (Hebrew indentured servant) who is working off a debt incurred by theft. It also applied to those who fell into poverty and could not pay their creditors.
Indentured servanthood provided a compassionate form of help.
Having been released from bondage in Egypt, the Israelites were to be especially sensitive to the needs of the slave.
Therefore, God instituted rules of social justice over slavery that protected human dignity and individual rights.
Those rules essentially made the slave owner responsible for the care and well-being of indentured servants.
Furthermore, it limited the length of time someone could be a slave.
All Hebrew slaves were only to serve for six years and then be released in the seventh year.
“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.” (Exodus 21:2)
Slavery in Haftarah Mishpatim (Prophetic Portion)
“I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’ Your ancestors, however, did not listen to Me.” (Jeremiah 34:13–14)
Haftarah Mishpatim emphasizes the seriousness with which God regards the limits of slavery outlined in the Torah portion, as well as His compassion for the slave.
When the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem, Israelite slave owners made a pact with King Zedekiah, agreeing to release their Jewish slaves.
One year later, however, when the Babylonians retreated, the slave owners (feeling now safe and secure) set about to forcibly re-enslave those they had previously set free. (Jeremiah 34:8–11)
Because they once again transgressed Parasha Mishpatim’s commandment concerning slavery, Jeremiah prophesied God’s judgment—the complete destruction of Jerusalem.
Following the execution of that judgment, many were carried off as captives to Babylon. Many never returned, although a remnant remained in Judah.
Even so, this destruction is not the end of the story.
This Haftarah concludes with God’s promise to restore the fortunes of the Jewish People and have compassion on them.
“This is what the LORD says: ‘If I have not made My covenant with day and night and established the laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David My servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them.’” (Jeremiah 33:25–26)
Love Your Neighbor
“For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:14)
The laws given in Mishpatim were intended to create within Judaism a profound respect for every human being.
It is told that a 13th century Jewish sage, Hillel, was challenged to sum up the entire Torah while standing on one leg. Hillel responded with ve’ahavta l’reacha kamocha (and you shall love your neighbor as yourself).
Yeshua (Jesus) responded to a similar challenge in like manner:
“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them [Yeshua and the Sadducees] debating. Noticing that Yeshua had given them a good answer, he asked Him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’”
“The most important one,” answered Yeshua, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28–31)
Yeshua emphasized that our primary service in this life is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
If we want to sum up all of the Torah in one word, it would be this: love.
“This one commandment I give unto you—that you love one another.” (John 13:34)
Yeshua did not come to abolish the Torah, but to fulfill it. He came to show us what the Torah is all about and live it out perfectly, without violating a single law. And this He did while emphasizing the Torah’s foundation is love for God and our neighbor.
We can be trying so hard to keep all the rules—all the mishpatim—to the letter and still miss the spirit of the Torah if we are doing it all without love.
The apostle Paul went as far as to say that if we have not love, we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13).