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Mishpatim 5771

Haftarah Parshat Mishpatim
(Jeremiah 34:6-22; 33:25-26)
January 29, 2011
24 Shevat 5771

The redemption of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage has been instrumental in shaping the Jewish psyche. It is the basis for God\’s covenant with Israel and the Jewish commitment to carry out God\’s will in the world. God\’s good will requires human reciprocity. The freedom granted the people was intended to make an indelible impression on them and shape their behavior throughout the generations. Early in the exodus story, Moses received a charge from God: \”So the LORD spoke to both Moses and Aaron in regard to the children of Israel, and Pharaoh king of Egypt, instructing them (vayitzavem) to deliver the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.\” (Exodus 6:13) This English translation removes some of the difficulty of the Hebrew. In the Hebrew, it is unclear what the word \”vayitzavem\” – \”instructed them\” or \”commanded them\” refers to.

This ambiguity, of course, lends itself to an interpretive midrash: \”Said Rabbi Samuel bar Rav Isaac: \’And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, and commanded them regarding Israel…\’ – With regard to what did God command them? [He commanded them] regarding the freeing of slaves. This is in accord with the teaching of Rabbi Hila who said: Israel was punished [at the time of the destruction of the First Temple because they did not free their slaves, as it is written: \’At the end of seven years, each of you must let go your Hebrew slaves.\’ (Jeremiah 34:14) (Adapted from Talmud Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 3:4 58d)

This midrash references Jeremiah\’s message in this week\’s haftarah. Jeremiah expected his people to heed the laws regarding the freeing of slaves: \”every man should set free his Hebrew slaves, male and female, and every man his maidservant, being a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, go free; and no one should keep his fellow Jew enslaved; Everyone, officials and people, who had entered into the covenant agreed to let their male and female slaves go free and not keep them enslaved any longer; they complied and let them go. But afterwards they turned about and brought back the men and women they had set free, and forced them into slavery again.\” (Jeremiah 34:9-11)

This hypocrisy and malevolent neglect of both their history and God\’s covenant justifiably infuriated both God and the prophet: \”Thus said the Lord, the 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 served you six years, you must free him\’; But your fathers would not obey Me or give ear.\” (13-14) Jeremiah goes on to link the tragic demise of the southern kingdom and the impending destruction of the Temple to this breech in the covenant and lack of human decency.

What is the larger message in this homiletic interpretation? God predicated the freedom He granted us from Egyptian bondage on our building a society based on this example. Jeremiah witnessed that this ideal had broken down and he linked the disregard for the freedom of others with the destruction of the nation. This idea should not be limited just to freedom from slavery but should also be applied to all of the rights of human beings that we expect for ourselves. When we deny them to others, then it appears that these rights will slip through our fingers 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.

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