This Week’s Torah Portion: Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1−24:18)
“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” (Emma Lazarus)
Sometimes the moment arrives… and we are not yet ready for that moment. This week’s Torah portion is just such a moment. The Children of Israel stand at the foot of Mount Sinai with the words of the Ten Commandments still echoing in our ears, completing our journey from slavery to freedom, and here the Torah turns to the laws of slavery. “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, they shall serve for six years and on the seventh year they shall go free.” (Exodus 21:2)
The moment arrives and we are not ready. We were slaves in Egypt and one might think this would be the time for us to abolish slavery, for we knew the heart of the oppressed. But we didn’t. Slavery was too engrained in our souls, too much a part of the world all around us, for us to even think of abolishing slavery altogether. Instead, we established laws for the better treatment of our slaves, and first among them was that after six years of servitude our slaves would go free. There was a promise of liberation, but that liberation was delayed.
It took us longer to learn and live God’s ultimate lesson of liberation:
“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
Interpersonal laws ranging from the treatment of slaves to the exhibition of kindness to strangers are listed. (21:1-23:9) Cultic laws follow, including the commandment to observe the Sabbatical Year, a repetition of the Sabbath injunction, the first mention of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals, rules of sacrificial offerings, and the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. (23:10-19) The people assent to the covenant. Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascend the mountain and see God. Moses goes on alone and spends forty days on the mountain. (24:1-18)