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Mishpatim 5768

Parshat Mishpatim
(Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-26)
26 Shevat 5768
February 2, 2008

This year, being a leap year in the Hebrew calendar, we add an additional month to the year. This means that the four special Shabbatot which precede Pesach will only start in another month. As a consequence, this gives us a rare opportunity to read the haftarah assigned for Parshat Mishpatim since in most years we read the special haftarah for Parshat Shekalim in its stead.

Parshat Mishpatim, itself, deals with issues of social justice, and this is also the theme of Jeremiah\’s message in the haftarah. Parshat Mishpatim is legislative in nature, chock full of laws. Jeremiah\’s message is juridical; an open indictment of Judean society for transgressions spelled out in the Torah\’s legislation. In particular, Jeremiah rails against the fact that the wealthy do not abide by the Torah\’s legislation regarding Hebrew slaves. Hebrew slavery was intended as a means for debtors to repay their debts. There was a maximum time limit on the amount of time someone could be a slave. Judean slave owners brazenly defied the seven year limit explicitly dictated by the Torah. Jeremiah warned that this was an affront to God and the Torah. The people, at first, heeded his message only to forcibly return their slaves soon afterwards. This breech constituted a rash infringement of God\’s covenant with his people.

Jeremiah indicates what made this breech so grievous in God\’s eyes: Thus said the Lord, God of Israel: \”I made a covenant with your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage, saying: In the seventh year each of you must let go any fellow Hebrew who may be sold to you, when he has serves you six years, you must set him free.\’ But your fathers would not obey me or give me ear.\” (34:13-14)

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (Lithuania 19-20th century) understood an underlying story from these verses in Jeremiah. He notes that this covenant was necessary because it relates to underlying \”facts\” about Egyptian slavery. He relates that not all of the Jews in Egypt were slaves. Some were rich and powerful and collaborated with the Egyptians in enslaving their own people. Some even maintained slaves themselves. (See Numbers Rabbah 13:8) This covenant was necessary in order to root out this evil institution from the life of the people. No wonder God was angry when His people in a later generation abrogated this covenant. (See Meshech Hochmah Exodus 6:13 Cooperman ed. pp. 30-31)

The Meshech Hochmah was obviously intimating some \”truths\” about his own generation by projecting these troubles onto the story about Egyptian bondage, much in the same way that Jeremiah had tried to elicit a change among his contemporaries by doing the same thing. Both were concerned with Jews who obtained power and wealth only to use it for immoral purposes. Both knew that such abuses would ultimately backfire and cause not only the downfall of those who sinned but of the whole community as well.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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