Haftarah Parshat Mishpatim
January 25, 2014
24 Shevat 5774
Parshat Mishpatim is chock-full of laws. It opens with a discussion of the regulations governing the taking of a Hebrew or Jewish slave. The Torah clearly delineates the limits of how long such a slave can be indentured and how and when he must be released. Generations later, the prophet Jeremiah condemns his compatriots for violating these regulations by holding slaves in perpetuity, as if they were chattel. He condemns them for violating the God-given covenant which required them to free their slaves as required by the Torah. After the people finally acquiesce to his plaint and free their slaves, they do so only to reverse their action, recapturing and enslaving them once again. Jeremiah, responding to this sinful behavior, proclaims God’s response to this transgression: “You would not obey Me and proclaim a release, each to his kinsman and countryman. Lo! I proclaim your release, declares the Lord, to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, and I will make you a horror to all the nations of the earth.” (34:17) In other words, Jeremiah links the sinful behavior of his countrymen to the downfall of the nation at the hands of the Babylonians.
The Talmud Yerushalmi relates an interesting interpretation of a verse from the Exodus story where God charged Moses and Aaron to confront both the children of Israel and Pharaoh: “’So the Lord spoke to both Moses and Aaron in regard to the Israelites and Pharaoh, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt (Exodus 6:13)’ – with regard to what did God charge them? – [He charged them] regarding the freeing of slaves. This is brought according to what was said by Rabbi Illa: Israel was punished [in Egypt] on account of not freeing slaves, as it is written: ‘At the end of seven years every one of you must let go any fellow Hebrew who was sold to you.’ (Jeremiah 34:7)” (Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 3:5 58d)
Rabbi Illa states in this ahistorical midrash that there were Jewish slave owners in Egypt who refused to abide by the limits set on slave ownership in the Torah. He asserts that it was this sin which accounted for Israel’s bondage in Egypt. The Yerushalmi’s projection of the sin of the generation of Jeremiah onto the generation of the Exodus was intended to imprint a sense of abhorrence for slavery in the collective memory of the Jewish people. It was intended as a reminder to all of us that one’s sins against others will ultimately come back to haunt us.
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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