Gateway to Proper Behaviour

“These are the judgments which you shall put in front of them. When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall work for six years and in the seventh year he shall go out free.” Many commentators ask why the laws of a Hebrew slave should be the very first subject discussed in Parshas Mishpatim, the first parsha after the giving of the Torah in Parshas Yisro. Wouldn’t learning what happens if they become slaves again be the last thing the Jews would have been interested in immediately after being freed from slavery themselves? We can imagine the Jews saying, “Don’t talk to us about slavery, we’ve just come out” to Moshe Rabeinu. Clearly Hashem had a good reason to begin Parshas Mishpatim with this subject.

Iyov is known as a righteous man. Tanach describes him as wholesome and upright; he feared Hashem and shunned evil. In Chapter 29 he describes his own righteousness. “I would rescue a pauper from his wailing and an orphan who had no-one to help him … I would bring joyous song to a widow’s heart. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the destitute.” And in Chapter 31 he says, “If my steps ever veered from the proper way or if my heart ever went after my eyes or anything ever clung to my hand.” Iyov claimed that had he been guilty of sin, he would have accepted his tribulations. Apparently he never did anything wrong, so where is justice?

These words of praise are mind-boggling if we think of Gemara Sotah (11a). “Before Pharaoh began enslaving the Jews he consulted three of his advisors. Bilaam encouraged him, Iyov was silent and Yisro fled.” Bilaam harosho encouraged him because he hated the Jews and tried later, more than once, to destroy them. Yisro fled because he could not countenance even being part of such injustice. Iyov was silent, apparently not wanting to support Pharaoh but also not willing to speak out against Pharaoh’s cruel plan to enslave the Jews. If he had spoken against Pharaoh or fled like Yisro, Pharaoh would have been left with one supporter out of three. With Iyov sitting on silently, he could perhaps claim that a majority of his advisors did not oppose his plans. Pharaoh went on to afflict the Jews with back-breaking slavery and to throw the Jewish boys into the river. Is this Iyov, Pharaohs advisor, the same person who claimed to be “eyes to the blind, feet to the lame and father to the destitute?” If he was such a tzaddik why didn’t he oppose Pharaoh or run away like Yisro? The Gemara indeed concludes that “Bilaam who encouraged Pharaoh was killed, Iyov who was silent was punished with yesurin and Yisro who ran away, he was blessed that his grandchildren sat later in the Sanhedrin”. But what was Iyov thinking when he claimed to be righteous? And how could the posuk say he was wholesome, upright and feared Hashem.

Imagine you are walking behind another Jew and you see money fall from his pocket. A few moments later he puts his hand in his pocket, realizes that his money is missing and you hear him say, “Oy veh for the money I have lost!” You know exactly where that money is. Do you have to tell him where his money is or can you rejoice in your sudden windfall and keep the money yourself?

Your Jewish domestic help puts your best china dishes in the sink — (not everybody has a dishwasher!) — rather too enthusiastically and your best set of eight fleishige plates has just become a set of five. You estimate that it will cost you £100 to replace it. You know this girl is an orphan and has barely enough money to live. Will you charge her for the damage? At the end of the day she comes to you for her wages as normal. Will you pay her or explain politely that since she has caused such damage, much more than the amount she normally earns, you are under no obligation to pay her?

In last week’s parsha (18:20), Yisro told Moshe Rabeinu, “And you should tell them the statutes and laws and you shall tell them the way they should go in and the deeds that they shall do.” Bobo Metzia (30b) interprets the last words of the posuk, “the deeds that they shall do,” as referring to going lifnim mishras hadin, beyond the strict halocho. In the cases we mentioned, the strict halacho allows us to keep the money ourselves, charge the orphan the full damages and certainly withhold her wages. However, lifnim mishuras hadin, Bobo Metzia (83a) says that it is correct not to charge damages and even to pay the wages as usual, although this could depend on the circumstances of the case. Rebbe Yochanon said that Yerushola’im was destroyed because the people followed the strict halocho and didn’t go lifnim mishuras hadin.(Bobo Metziah 30b).

Iyov may have been someone who shunned evil and feared Hashem in the sense that he was careful to do what he was strictly required to do, but he did not go beyond the letter of the law. When Pharaoh asked his opinion, he may have seen that Pharaoh was determined to begin his plan of slavery and disagreeing with him wouldn’t have changed anything. According to the strict moral requirements of his situation, he could sit there in silence. He was an oness, unable to do what should normally have been done in those circumstances.

Yisro, however, went lifnim mishuras hadin, as he later taught Moshe Rabeinu. To sit there and not protest was not an option for him. To argue was useless. But, at least, he could run away. Let no-one even think that he agreed with Pharaoh.

The parsha begins with the laws of a Hebrew slave. We would have thought that if we have a slave, we can treat him like a slave but the Torah later (Vayikra 25:39) tells us that this is explicitly forbidden. The halocho forbids us to tell him to him to do unnecessary work as well as telling him to work until we come back without indicating when this will be which is psychologically difficult.  Further, Kiddushin 22a says that the slave should not have an inferior bed to his master nor be given inferior food. Even a Canaanite slave for whom these halochos are more lenient, should be treated well by his master. “Mimidas chasidus we should treat our (Canaanite) slaves with mercy, feed them generously, speak to them respectfully and listen to any complaint they may have.” (Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 267:17).

What better way could there be to begin parshas Mishpatim? It is not just the laws of slaves. It is a gateway to proper behaviour; not always insisting on our rights; going beyond the strict halocho; showing mercy, generosity and respect to everyone. This is the way Yerushola’im will be rebuilt and this is how to receive Hashem’s blessings, for us and our families.

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