Mishpatim; Blast from the Past

Imagine you have just given your first lecture to your child on the ‘do's and don'ts’ of life. You have just finished sternly giving the rules, and...you then talk about rabbits. Where do you think the seriousness built up by your rules is going to go? The answer is that the atmosphere of obedience and strictness will dissipate rather quickly. In short, the point is that after having said something serious it is counterproductive to lower the tone immediately


The relevance to this week’s sedra is that the Bnei Yisrael have just heard the 10 commandments (20; 2-14), they have been then commanded and warned about idols (20;20) and the holy mizbeyach which was to symbolise the entire mikdash (20;21-23, Rashi 21;1).

So what now? Murder laws? Tzedaka? Kashrus? Torah study? Nope, laws of slaves. Yes, that's right, laws of buying and owning slaves! Why are laws of slaves put first after the climactic high-voltage experience of HaShem speaking at Har Sinai?

Let's strengthen this question with another question...is there any order within Parshas Mishpatim? For example, let's look at the nezikim (laws of damages) section (perek 21). Damages are split in halacha into 5 categories - an ox goring, falling into pit, fire consuming things, flock eating/trampling, and man damaging. Each category represents broader characteristics; for example nowadays a rolling car which smashes into another car might be classed in the ‘flock trampling’ category, for the damage is common. When we look at the psukim, these categories are split up, with seemingly no overall order. For example, pasuk 20-25 concerns man hitting man (the ‘man damaging‘ category), 25-26 = man hitting slave. 28-32 is an ox goring a man (‘ox‘ category). 33-34 is man falling into pit (‘pit’ category). 35-36 back to ox goring again; this time goring another ox. 21;37 until 22;1-3 sees man doing damage again; this time stealing cattle. Then later comes psukim regarding the flock and fire categories. What in the world is going on structurally - why is the ox category put in two separate parts, and why are the laws of theft interrupting the damages sections?

An answer given (and i think its a great answer personally) is that if you look at the ‘offender,’ i.e. the thing that does the damage, then there is no order. But if you focus on that which is being damaged, then a clear order emerges: first the psukim speak of man being damaged, then slaves, then animals, then vessels. (In fact, that's the point of veahata lereacha kamocha - focusing on the other person - which is one of the psukim brought as the prohibition for damaging property of others ; Yad Ramah Bava Basra 26a. This means that the actual action of damaging is wrong, even if one damages with intention to compensate the victim for his monetary loss - it’s not about the loss solely, but on the damager’s callousness in failing to accord enough respect for others and their property)

What emerges from this answer is that slaves are put between man and animal as victims in the damages section because halachically slaves bridge the gap between the two; they are people but they are owned by someone. So, given all of this information, why are slaves put first in the parasha, even before laws regarding damaging non-slaves - wouldn’t their correct place be after the psukim about ‘free people,’ as it is in the damages section? [One might also be able to ask why do we need to be told laws about being kind to slaves; we were slaves! We know how harsh it feels when slaves are mistreated; why would we ever mistreat a slave to necessitate being taught these laws? Personally, I don’t think this latter question is a particularly great question for a few reasons. Firstly, these laws were to last for generations to come; not only those who remembered slavery from Egypt. And secondly, many of the laws here are technical laws of acquiring slaves (eg putting peg through slave’s ear is a method of acquisition, acquiring according to some, and laws about marrying a slave off are not necessary under the category of fair treatment). And lastly, there is a concept that even though one might not do an action anyway, we might still be commanded to do it for several reasons eg to get reward or to teach us about mitzvos in general (see Rashi Devarim 12;23 and 12;25) ]

To answer this point one principle about human nature needs to be understood: there is a natural inclination to dislike that which is close to where you are / where you came from. There is no dislike of that which is far from you. For example, nobody hates or is jealous of a chickens because there is a world of difference between us and chickens, but people are often jealous of / don't like people who are extremely similar to who they are/were, because it reminds them of their own faults. This is also why the gemarra pesachim 50a says that the person who hates talmidei chachamim most is one who was religious and is no longer (history has proven this) because one hates their past if one has actively ensured that it is no longer part of their present.

[The reason for this phenomenon might be based on something R' Dessler reveals; all bad midos are rooted in creating a difference between people; you cannot be proud of the fact that you have 2 eyes because most people have 2 eyes. But people are proud of their possessions, for that emphasises a difference between you and others. So too does jealousy emphasise a difference between you and another. Maybe according to this if such a large distance already exists there's no need/point to make that difference via being jealous. And consequently, one tends to feel the most dislike for that which is closest to who we are, for there is most ‘need’ to create a distance there.]

Now the Bnei Yisrael are not supposed to be servants/slaves; we are literally hammered in the ear for it (21;6), even though slavery is part of out past - we were slaves in Egypt. This is a great example of the above; that of a past not connected to one’s present at all. So our natural inclination is to hate slaves because we were them once. This might also be why there are 2 mitzvos to love a convert, for before matan torah nobody was Jewish so we were all geirim (see gemarra yevamos 46a-b). Therefore, slave laws and being fair to slaves is positioned first after the ten commandments; to stress the fact that Bnei Yisrael are to combat their natural inclination to hate slaves.

This might be the depth of the words of the Chizkuni (21;2) who says that the laws of slaves were put first, for ‘we were redeemed from slavery and were thus commanded not to subject others to harsh slavery.’ [see Ramban and Ibn Ezra for other approaches.] Lastly, according to this, the opening words of the sedra could have a new explanation; “veayle hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem” (these are the laws which you shall place before them). The commentaries give explanations as to what this word ‘lifneihem’ means here. Lifnei can mean ‘in front of,’ or it can mean ‘before’ (in terms of time).

According to our explanation above it can mean ‘against your past,’ I.e. put the laws of slave treatment against your past - because according to your past you would naturally discriminate against slaves.












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