Weekly Letter: Highlights on Mishpatim

This week, we present an article about Parshas Mishpatim from the Talks and Tales children’s monthly magazine, which Rabbi Nissan Mindel authored for close to 47 years, every single issue of which the Rebbe carefully checked before the magazine went to print each month.

This fascinating article has the Rebbe’s numerous notations (which we are not including here) and is from the forthcoming book by Nissan Mindel Publications – Chabad in America Through the Folders of Nissan Mindel.

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Highights on the Sedra Mishpatim

The Sedra begins with the verse: “And these are the ordinances (Ve’eleh ha’mishpatim) which you (Mosheh) shall set before them.” (Exod. 29:2).

The Sedra  Mishpatim is the continuation of the previous Sedra, Yisro, in which is described G-d’s Revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments.

Our Sages comment on the world ve’eleh (“And these are”), saying that the vav  (“and”) links the laws set forth in this Sedrah (and in all the Sedras that follow) to the preceding Ten Commandments. As the Ten Commandments came from G-d on Sinai, so did these and all the other laws of the Torah come from G-d on Sinai.

The Sedrah contains 53 laws (the sum of the two Hebrew letters gimmel (3) and nun (50), forming the word gan, “garden”). Of these, 24 are positive commandments (“do’s”) and 29 prohibitions (“don’ts”). These cover a whole range of laws having to do with relations between Jew and Jew, beginning with the duties of master to servant, causing injury to people, or damage to people’s property; moral laws; laws of loans and pledges, etc. They include also the prohibition of eating trefah (non-kosher food), laws of justice and judges, laws of Shabbos and Shemittah (Sabbatical Year), and others.

Two underlying characteristics are emphasized in the Sedra in connection with all mitzvos: human kindness  and holiness. In other words, carrying out G-d’s commandments make us kind and holy, since G-d is kind and holy.

Thus it is significant that after the Ten Commandments, about which we read in the previous Sedra, the first laws which the Torah begins to spell out in detail deal with the treatment of an eved Ivri, a Jewish servant.

It is noteworthy that there is no separate word for servant in our holy tongue (Hebrew). The word eved could mean either “servant” or “slave” depending on the connection in which it is used. Thus, in connection with Pharaoh, avodim  (plural of eved) certainly means “slaves.” But when Hashem says, “Unto Me shall the children of Israel be avodim, they are My avodim, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 25:55) – the meaning is “servants.

Indeed, the greatest tribute the Torah pays to Moshe Rabbeinu upon his death is the designation eved HaShem, “Servant of G-d” (Deut. 34:5).

There could be one of two ways for a Jew to become the eved of another Jew. One way would be if a Jew happened to steal something and later was unable to make payment for the theft. In such a case the Beth Din (Rabbinic Court) “sold” the thief (actually, the service  of the thief) to the man whose property had been stolen, to make up for the loss.

The second way was when a man became very poor and did not want to live on charity, so he voluntarily became a servant.

In either case, the Torah lays down clear laws and regulations as to how the master must treat his servant with special consideration and kindness. The servant must not serve longer than six years and must go free in the seventh year. If the Jubilee year (yovel) occurs during the six years, the servant goes free even before completing his six years of service. If the servant happens to be a married man, the master is obliged to support the servant’s wife and children. Should the servant declare (publicly, before judges): “I love my master… I do not wish to go free (!), he had to have his right ear pierced with an awl by the door and mezuzah. Even then he could remain in service only until the year of Yovel.

Why the ear? Explained Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai: “the ear heard HaShem proclaim at Sinai ‘You shall not steal!” – yet this man went and stole, let his ear be pierced!”  And in the case of a Jew who voluntarily sold himself into service: “The ear that heard HaShem declare at Sinai, ‘Unto Me (only) shall the children of Israel be servants,’ yet this man went and got himself a (human) master – let his ear be pierced!”

Although the laws concerning master and servant applied only during the time when the law of the yovel was in force in the Land of Israel and do not apply now and not until Moshiach will come and the yovel will be reinstituted; and although even in ancient times it was probably on rare occasions that these laws had to be applied, the Torah nevertheless begins to set forth the laws of Jewish life and conduct precisely with these uncommon laws. In this way the Torah emphasizes certain basic principles which are of paramount and eternal value.

One is the importance to realize that all human beings, even the humblest, have inalienable rights; and every human being has to be treated with dignity and compassion, especially those who are socially disadvantaged. This is also why the Torah makes it our duty to treat with special consideration the stranger, the orphan and widow. (in this Sedra, 22:20-21).

Indeed he author of Sefer HaChinuch observes in reference to this Serdra: “A Jew who does not show compassion in accordance with the compassionate precepts of the Torah, not only transgresses the Divine commandments, but almost gives testimony by his conduct that he is not of the Jewish people, who are “merciful, the children of merciful.” (Mitzvah 42).

A further basic principle connected with the laws of master and servant, that is relevant today as always, is that though these laws are rare in so far as actual implementation is concerned, they remind us who we are and what is the very essence of a Jew: servants of HaShem.

This brings us also to the second fundamental aspect of all mitzvos, mentioned earlier, namely holiness. Though the practice of the Divine Mitzvos, a Jew draws upon himself holiness from On High and thus embodies, in a tangible way, the designation which G-d gave to the Jewish people just before giving us His Torah and mizvos at Sinai: “You shall be unto Me a kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation.” (Exod. 19:6).

While in regard to all mitzvos we thank HaShem for having “sanctified us with His commandments,” the aspect of holiness is particularly evident in the case of Mitzvos for which there seems no “rational” explanation. Thus, the   law of treifa (non-kosher food) is introduced in this sedra with the words: “You shall be holy people (Anshei-kodesh) unto Me” (Sedra, 22:30). Like all mitzvos, this too is a Divine commandment as well as a promise.

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The above article is from Chabad in America Through the Folders of Nissan Mindel by Nissan Mindel Publications (NMP).

We thank Rabbi Shalom Ber Schapiro, who was entrusted by his father-in-law Rabbi Mindel with his archives and who is Director of the Nissan Mindel Publications (NMP), for making the Rebbe’s letters available to the wider public. May the merit of the many stand him in good stead.

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