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Parashat Mishpatim: The Value of Choice

Parshat Mishpatim is an overwhelming cluster of laws that the Kadosh Baruch Hu delivered to our people. Just last Shabbat, we received the foundational Decalogue, which is the Ten Commandments or statements, and this week, this cascade of laws.

The easy answer to the question of why so many laws in such an intense manner is that probably having everyone gathered in front of Mount Sinai provides a unique opportunity to transmit them to a united people who have just declared that they will do everything their God tells them.

 

However, this people is something more than that. This people has just been liberated from 400 years of slavery. It is a people who must learn to conduct themselves in freedom. Generations passed before they could again decide on their own times, their choices for everyday life, and how to behave towards others who are also free.

 

The first law that the Torah transmits to them is that of the Hebrew slave: "When you acquire a Hebrew slave, that person shall serve six years and shall go free in the seventh year, without payment. If a male slave came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone. But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free.” (Exodus 21:2-4)

 

Why start with this topic of slavery when there are so many other topics to address?

The answer is almost obvious. The Israelites suffered from slavery in Egypt. It must have happened for a reason, since God knew it would happen. Obviously, it was His intention that it would happen. Centuries earlier, God had already told Abraham what was going to happen:

 

"At sunset Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a dense and frightening darkness enveloped him. Then the Lord said to him: 'You must know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be foreigners in a country that is not theirs and they will be enslaved and mistreated there.'" (Genesis 15: 12-13)

 

Apparently, this was a necessary first experience destined to constitute the Israelites as a nation. From the very beginning of human history, the God of freedom sought for there to be free worship, of free human beings, but one after another, the people abused that freedom; first Adam and Eve, then Cain, then the generation of the Flood, and finally the builders of Babel.

 

God started again, this time not with all of humanity, but with one man, one woman, one family, who would be the pioneers of freedom. But freedom is difficult. We seek it for ourselves, but we deny it to others when theirs conflicts with ours. So deep is this truth that after only three generations of Abraham's sons, Joseph's brothers were willing to sell him into slavery: a tragedy that only ended when Judah was willing to surrender his own freedom so that his brother Benjamin could go free.

 

The collective experience of the Israelites, their deep, intimate, personal, strenuous, and bitter experience of slavery was necessary to transform them into a people who would never again hand their sisters and brothers over to slavery, into a people capable of building a free society, the most difficult achievement in the realm of human life. This memory of slavery had to be imprinted on the collective memory of the people for generations so that respect for one's own and others' freedom would be the founding element in any situation.

 

The general concept of freedom guides us to the different particular concepts of freedom. Among them, the freedom of choice in the face of a universe that seems predestined by the Kadosh Baruch Hu is basic to our tradition.

 

Therefore, it is not surprising that the first laws stated after Sinai refer to slavery. It would have been a surprise if it had been about anything else. But now comes the real question: if God does not want slavery, if He considers it an offense to the human condition, why did He not abolish it immediately? Why did He allow it to continue even if restricted and regulated? Is it conceivable that God, who can make water flow from a stone, rain manna from heaven, and turn the sea into dry land, cannot change human behavior? Are there areas where the Lord has no power?

 

 The general concept of freedom guides us to the different particular concepts of freedom. Among them, the freedom of choice in the face of a universe that seems predestined by the Kadosh Baruch Hu is basic to our tradition.


Even when we can choose wrongly and take the wrong side, freedom is not negotiable: it must exist. That is exactly what God does with the issue of slavery. He does not abolish it, but he circumscribes it so much that he sets in motion a process that effectively, even after many centuries, people will abolish it of their own free will.

 

A Hebrew slave is released after six years. If he has become so accustomed to his condition that he does not wish to be free, he is obliged to undergo a stigmatizing ceremony, the piercing of an ear, which will remain as a visible sign of shame forever. On Shabbat, slaves cannot be forced to work. All these measures tend to transform the lifelong fate of slavery into a temporary condition, perceived as more of a humiliation than something indelibly inscribed in the human being.

 

Why do things this way? Because people must freely choose to abolish slavery if they really want to be free.

 

Also, if we pay attention, all the laws that are transmitted to us after this first one have to do with making the decision to change our lives for the better. Always showing us the positive side of it, but also leading us to reflect on the bad things that may happen to us.


God can change nature, said Maimonides, but he cannot, or does not want to, change human nature, precisely because Judaism was built on the principle of human freedom. So he could not abolish slavery overnight, but He could try to show us the path that He desired as right for us, showing us that slavery is wrong, and that we must be the ones to abolish it, in our own time, through our own understanding. Indeed, it took a long time, and in the United States, not without a civil war. But it happened.

 

“Hakol tzafui vehareshut netuna” (Avot 3:15). Everything is foreseen, but choice is possible. The choice is always ours.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Kodesh tov. May we have an excellent month of Adar, during which the remaining Israeli hostages are released.


Rabbi Gustavo Geier

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