Mishpatim - Weekly Torah Portion

This Shabbat, the first of the month of Adar, is known as Shabbat Sheqalim and we read a different Maftir and Haftarah. It is also the Shabbat I had my Bar Mitzvah. However, due to the context of what I want to speak about the reference in this sermon will be to the regular reading.

“Now these are the ordinances which you are to set before them” are the words opening the portion of the Torah which we recite this week and lays the foundation to the expansion of the ten commandments we read about last week. These provide a legal basis from which laws and bylaws develop and evolve, each having its own logic and precedent. The first law we read about concerns the slaves. “If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall leave as a free man without a payment to you. If he comes alone, he shall leave alone; if he is the husband of a wife, then his wife shall leave with him.If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall leave alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not leave as a free man,’ then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently.”

Seemingly this piece of law is irrelevant in our world today. What is our involvement with slaves? When did it happen last that a slave wanted to become a permanent slave of ours?! Truth be said that it was relevant in the times of the prophet Jeremiah. He reminds the people of their obligation to set slaves free. “And all the officials and all the people obeyed who had entered into the covenant that each person was to set his male servant free and each his female servant, so that no one would keep them in bondage any longer; they obeyed, and set them free.” But without trying to outsmart the system things can simply not stand. Therefore, “afterward they turned around and took back the male servants and the female servants whom they had set free, and brought them into subjection as male servants and as female servants.” The people gave the statute their own interpretation that was inconsistent with its spirit. The response, “Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘You have not obeyed Me in proclaiming release, each one to his brother and each to his neighbor. Behold, I am proclaiming a release to you,’ declares the Lord, ‘to the sword, to the plague, and to the famine; and I will make you a terror to all the kingdoms of the earth.’” God has also ways of quitting promises and defeat is close.

There is something tempting about becoming a slave, someone else makes decisions and assumes responsibility, another person bears the burden and there is no need to spend time trying to reach conclusions. These words come to remind us that things simply do not work this way. We must take control over our lives, be responsible to them, understand what is going on around us, and never get addicted to that which is comfortable, easy or pleasing to listen to. To the contrary, we have the obligation to challenge, to ponder, to think, to make ancient teachings relevant. We may not have slaves but maybe we enable others to make us into slaves. Those who makes us forget that we need to deliberate, doubt and reason. Some are in politics and government, others are in religious positions, there are teachers and parents. None is perfect, each may be mistaken. We can always fix things by spending time learning, understanding, getting to know, and deepen our search.

There one other piece of law we may wish to look at today and make it relevant to our lives. “If, however, someone is enraged against his neighbor, so as to kill him in a cunning way, you are to take him even from My altar, to be put to death.” In this case we are speaking of someone conspiring against another person and someone like that may be removed from the holly altar, which usually would protect a perpetrator, so bad is his deed. Of course, today we do not seek or wish to use capital punishment but it is important to realize that it is easy today to, knowingly or unknowingly, conspire to condemn others to life threatening situations. Take for example those who refrain from getting vaccinated relying on the effects of crowd immunization. Here, those who do not get vaccinated, which only requires two shots to reduce the risks associated with the coronavirus, put at risk others unjustifiably.

I am far from being a proponent of capital punishment – far from it. Judaism that has begun with laws having capital punishments, even in the portion of Mishpatim we read this Shabbat, has moved away from that. In the Mishna we learn that a Sanhedrin that kills once in seven years is referred to as vicious. Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria even claims that this is once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva are quoted to have said, that if they were on the Sanhedrin nobody would have been ever killed by it. As for the vaccine, capital punishment is of course not the way, rather detailed information and explanation should be provided, emphasizing the importance of getting vaccinated, the low risks as best known today, and the great benefit that it entails. Like with the laws of slavery and the laws of conspiration, the important lesson is to go and study, learn, understand and make your Judaism relevant to life today. Mae learned decisions that is not based on hearsay provided by charlatans. If you did not get vaccinated against the coronavirus go and do that as soon as possible, at least for the sake of other. I got the vaccine already. Twice.

Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov and wishes for Good Health.

Reuven Marko, 12 February 2021, 1 Adar, 5781

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