February 12th-13th, 1999
27 Shevat, 5759
The Kollel wishes a sincere Mazal Tov to Mr. and Mrs. Harold Yellin and family, on the
occasion of Josh's bar mitzvah.
This week's issue was written by Rabbi Dovid Frost, in commemoration of the sh'loshim of
his mother-in-law, Rus bas Avraham.
"And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them. If you buy a
Jewish bondsman..." (21, 1; Artscroll Chumash, p. 417)
The parsha this week starts off as though it will teach some basic standards by which we
should live (the ordinances), but then immediately begins to discuss--of all things--the
Hebrew slave! One might wonder, "What possible beauty or relevance does this
law have, particularly at the start of a portion which contains such fundamental precepts
as being kind to the orphan and widow, paying for damages to person and property and not
lending with interest?" (And many more besides: there are over 50 mitzvos
contained in Parshas Mishpatim!) What is this law of the Hebrew slave doing here?
To clear up any misconceptions, we must understand
first how this person becomes a slave. One way is that he doesn't have the money to take
care of himself, and he "sells" his labor to someone to be able to work off his
debts. Alternatively, he has been found guilty of theft, but does not have the
means to pay restitution to his victim; he must now pay back society for what he has done.
Think for a moment about what our society does to those who steal. It sends them to
jail. Is this really the best place for such a person? Probably not.
Having worked in a jail years ago, I have some first-hand experience in this area.
(No, I wasn't the Kosher Policeman, nor was I a guard.) I was employed in the
Department of Corrections of Jackson County, Mo., and I had the opportunity to see the
records of the inmates. It was amazing how many came in first on minor charges, and
then years later, after being out for a while, returned with more serious charges...until
eventually, some were imprisoned for murder. Is this what we should be doing--
creating holding areas for millions of people? It seems like a better idea to try to
rehabilitate them. But how?
As we see from the law of the Hebrew slave, the Torah's
solution is to have the person who stole be sold. But not just to anyone. To
the person he stole from! Now, each would have to try to properly relate to, and
care for, the other. The owner must observe a host of laws designed to assure the
well-being of his slave, including giving up his pillow should there be only one for the
two of them. There is truth in the old saying, "One who acquires a slave,
acquires a master." Think how different society would be if a law like this
The Torah's prescription for maintaining a just and humane society, where everyone cares
for each other, is to make sure we take care of even our misfits. As Rabbi Samson
Raphael Hirsch writes, "When the word of G-d wants us to realize what are the
principles of rights and humaneness which it demands for the respect of the human being,
it starts off with the criminal." (Hirsch, Commentary of Exodus, p. 289)
Now we have an answer to our original question about why these ordinances begin
with the law of the Jewish slave. We have to know how to deal even with a criminal
justly...so we can be sure to deal with everyone in the proper way.
As the Sefer HaChinuch writes, the laws associated with
the Hebrew slave teach us to be merciful to someone under our ownership. The Parsha,
then, is telling us at the very start that if we are to be good Jews, creating the right
environment for our own families, we need to help EVERY Jew strive to reach his or her
potential--even those who have acted wrongly, and fallen to a low spiritual level.
May Hashem help us to follow the wise dictates of the Torah, and internalize its
noble teachings, so that we may be a blessing to our people, and to all of mankind.
Insights Into Genesis
Insights Into Exodus
Edelstein is Director
of the Savannah Torah Education Project (STEP). Phone: 912-355-0157;
fax: 912-354-9923; e-mail: Yosef18@aol.com
Please be in touch
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