Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 6 February 2016 / 27 Shevat 5776

Parshat Mishpatim

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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The Jewish Indentured Servant (Bondsman)

The main focus of the first part of this Parsha is on civil and criminal laws, which are found in almost every society. Abarbanel is puzzled by the fact that the first laws mentioned deal with the unique case of the Hebrew bondsman. Abarbanel gives two reasons. The first commandment heard at Mount Sinai was “I am the L-rd your G-d Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” We then had the merit to be “G-d’s servants”, and, as a result, it would not be fitting to be indentured in a type of servitude to each other indefinitely. Therefore, the indentured servant is free to return to his home and family after six years. Secondly, the beginning of the Torah in the Creation narrative makes it clear that G-d brought everything into existence from absolute nothingness; all was a totally new creation which was a result of His will alone. We will see how this idea is reinforced through the connection of the bondsman to Shabbat and the Shemitah year.

Even though the last five of the ten commandments (Don’t murder; Don’t commit adultery; Don’t steal; Don’t bear false witness; Don’t covet anything belonging to your fellow Jew) are expressed in a very abbreviated manner and appear to be no different than the laws that govern all civilized nations, this is actually not the case. These apparently “universal laws” contain numerous unique features that are clearly Divinely, and not humanly, ordained, and they apply specifically to the Children of Israel, not to the other nations. Since the first commandment of this group is the general prohibition against murder, the Parsha begins with servitude which is considered similar to murder, since, in a sense, it takes away the servant’s life. Being charitable is equated to giving life; holding a person in servitude is the opposite. It is equated, in a sense, to murder. The prophet Jeremiah excoriated his fellow Jews for taking back the bondsmen that they had previously freed: “Therefore, thus said G-d: You did not hearken to Me to proclaim freedom, every man for his brother and every man for his fellow; behold I proclaim you to be free — the word of G-d — for the sword, for pestilence and for famine; and I shall make you an object of horror for all the kingdoms of the earth.” (Jeremiah 34:17) The punishment is “measure for measure”. Having committed “murder” through servitude they would be subject to sword, pestilence and famine.

The Torah speaks of a thief who cannot repay what he stole. The courts then sell him so that the wages of his labor can be used to pay off his obligation. In the seventh year, unless he voluntarily chooses to remain, he is sent home free, without any obligation to his former master.

The Divine nature of this opening section of the Parsha and its connection to the very Creation itself is reflected in the mitzvah of Shemitah, the obligation to refrain from agricultural activities every seventh year, and the mitzvah of Shabbat with its obligation to refrain from creative activities every seventh day. Both Shemitah and Shabbat are obviously Divinely-ordained concepts that point to G-d as the Creator and Sustainer of the entire universe. By commencing with a “civil law” that is comparable to these Divine laws which also focus on a seven-year cycle, the Parsha is reminding us that all of the laws to follow have a profound Divine basis, rooted in the very Creation itself, and are significantly different from the legal systems of the other nations of the world.

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