Parshat Mishpatim

Parshat Mishpatim
Torah Reading for Week of January 31 – February 6, 2016


Human Limits
By Tamar Frankiel, PhD, Provost

The institution of slavery, which takes away a person’s freedom, is unfortunate in any society.  Human beings are created b’tzelem elokim, in the image of God, and the fulfillment of that image requires freedom – to work, to create, to love, to raise up the next generation. But societies inherently generate forces of inequality that give some people more freedom than others, usually because of status or resources.  Slavery is one frequent outcome.

In Jewish law of ancient times, a Jew could end up in slavery either because he was convicted of theft, and the court ruled that restitution would be made by his enslavement; or he might voluntarily submit to slavery because he owed money to another.  This was not a pleasant choice; the person would be controlled by his owner; he could not acquire property; he could be married to someone his owner chose; and his children would belong to the owner as slaves.  Even though Jewish law insisted that the slave had to be treated well, it was not a fulfilling life in normal terms.

But slavery had a limit:  6 years.  After that, the slave could go free, all debts paid.  This week’s haftarah (Jeremiah 34) tells of a time when the king had decreed the shmitah year with its call to free the slaves, the slaveowners freed them, but then forced them back into slavery.  God’s response was quick and to the point:  You won’t free your slaves?  “Then I will proclaim ‘freedom’ to you, to sword, pestilence, and famine!”  Your greed and exercise of power will be met with limits.

Jewish law is very interested in limits.  It recognizes that while meaningful human freedom requires scope for play, investment, and risk, still, humans cannot be allowed to do whatever they want as long as they want.  Debt, like slavery, was limited to six years. Corporal punishment was limited to 40 lashes, and less if the person was weak. There was a limit of 50 years for unregulated acquisition of land, after which the land reverted to its original tribe.  Kings were dangerous because they tended to exceed limits, multiplying wives and horses for themselves.

Limits are inherent in a just society, in good child-rearing and educational practices, and in relationships. In fact, our Mishnah tells us there are only a few things “without limit,” where laws do not dictate their measure, sh’ein lahem shiur:  the ‘corners of the field’ left for the poor, first-fruits, pilgrimage to the Temple, acts of kindness, and study of Torah.  These are all acts of giving – even Torah study, for it is a benefit to the community as well as to yourself.  But when you are in the position to take for yourself, you must set limits.

The parsha opens with instructions to the Jewish people to “set ordinances (mishpatim) before themselves” – in other words, exercise judgment and set limits.  Like kings who multiply wives and horses, we want to acquire resources, influence, and power. If we are angry, we want to multiply punishment.  If we see potential for profit, we pursue it avidly, ignoring the potential for long-term damage.  For a time, we might make laws that alleviate burdens on the poor — health expenses, educational loans, underwater mortgages, or ecological damage – but like the princes and people in Jeremiah’s day, we turn, allowing new conditions of economic slavery to flourish.

Perhaps it would help to remember that the laws and principles elucidated in parshat Mishpatim are not just civil laws; they are divine laws.  “You have not listened to Me!” says God.

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