Torah Weekly

For the week ending 5 February 2005 / 26 Shevat 5765

Parshat Mishpatim

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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The Jewish People receive a series of laws concerning social justice. Topics include: Proper treatment of Jewish servants; a husband's obligations to his wife; penalties for hitting people and for cursing parents, judges, and leaders; financial responsibilities for damaging people or their property, either by oneself or by one's animate or inanimate property, or by pitfalls that one created; payments for theft; not returning an object that one accepted responsibility to guard; the right to self-defense of a person being robbed.

Other topics include: Prohibitions against seduction; witchcraft, bestiality and sacrifices to idols. The Torah warns us to treat the convert, widow and orphan with dignity, and to avoid lying. Usury is forbidden and the rights over collateral are limited. Payment of obligations to the Temple should not be delayed, and the Jewish People must be Holy, even concerning food. The Torah teaches the proper conduct for judges in court proceedings. The commandments of Shabbat and the Sabbatical year are outlined. Three times a year Pesach, Shavuot and Succot we are to come to the Temple. The Torah concludes this listing of laws with a law of kashrut not to mix milk and meat.

G-d promises that He will lead the Jewish People to the Land of Israel, helping them conquer its inhabitants, and tells them that by fulfilling His commandments they will bring blessings to their nation. The people promise to do and listen to everything that G-d says. Moshe writes the Book of the Covenant, and reads it to the people. Moshe ascends the mountain to remain there for 40 days in order to receive the two Tablets of the Covenant.


The Ultimate Glamour Slammer

"If you buy a Jewish slave" (21:2)

McKean Federal Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania, USA reminds visitors of a college campus. Its housed in a low-profile building, decorated inside in a gray and salmon Navajo motif. Inmates stroll on concrete walkways to classes in basic reading skills, masonry, carpentry, horticulture, barbering, cooking and catering.

In August 1962, Kerala, India opened its first prison without walls. Viewed as an experiment, the prison holds 280 of Kerala's 5,308 prisoners. The open prison is known for treating prisoners with respect and entrusting them with responsibilities for work on the rubber plantation, personal chores and cooperation within the prison community. To date, there has been only one repeat offender.

And a revolution is taking place inside San Franciscos Jail No. 7 and Jail No. 8, known as the "glamour slammer." The 700 cons inside, doing time for everything from drug possession to armed robbery, mostly stay in open dormitories and spend up to 12 hours each day in some of over 50 separate treatment, counseling, training and education programs. Prisoners can join counseling groups, such as Tools for Healing, Drama Therapy, or take yoga and meditation classes. The idea is to break the cycle of violence by transforming the typical jailhouse culture of humiliation and violence into one of dignity and healing.

In this weeks Torah portion we learn of the eved ivri. Eved ivri is usually translated as "a Hebrew slave". However, an eved ivri is a far cry from the typical picture of a slave. For starters, his maximum period of indenture is six years. It is forbidden to give him demeaning labor such as putting shoes on his master. His master must share whatever food he has with his slave. If the master eats white bread, he may not give his slave dark bread. If he drinks wine he may not give his slave water. If he sleeps on a soft bed he may not give his slave straw on which to sleep.

Not only that, but if the master only has one pillow, the slave gets the pillow. And should the slave become ill and costs his master hefty medical bills, he owes his master nothing when he leaves. Some slavery!

How does a Jew become a slave? One way is if someone steals and cannot afford the restitution that the Torah mandates, then the Bet Din sells the thief to reimburse the victim of the theft. However, rather than locking up the thief and exposing him to all deleterious influences that a jail encourages, he is placed in the most positive of environments a Jewish family home. Rather than subject his family to shame and starvation, the Torah requires the master to not only care for the slave but to support the thiefs family as well.

In fact, the master must provide his slave with such excellent conditions that it may seem that rather than acquire a slave, the master has acquired for himself a master.

As enlightened as recent prison reforms may be, they hardly compare with the Torahs emphasis on rehabilitation, for three thousand years ago the Torah had already instituted the ultimate glamour slammer.

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