And now…the laws. After the enumeration of a few national mitzvot scattered throughout the beginning parshiyot of Sefer Shemot, we are finally presented with the first official listing of God’s laws. And to start the ball rolling (drum roll, please): the laws of a Jewish slave (?!). Why is this chosen to initiate the first great compilation of God’s expected behavior from us? Immediately after this initial section, the Torah lists the laws concerning theft, damages and capital punishment – wouldn’t this most universal set of laws be more fitting to begin God’s initial mitzvot-demands for His budding nation?
This week’s haftarah describes God’s chastisement of Bnei Yisrael through the prophet Yirmyahu. God is infuriated by the people’s return to enslaving their Jewish brethren after they had previously accepted God’s command to free all their slaves. Not only were they now defying God’s will, but they had already demonstrated their understanding of what God wanted (by previously freeing their slaves) and now were, in essence, blatantly ignoring what they knew was Divinely desired! And the punishment for such iniquitous behavior? God says, “You did not listen to Me to declare freedom for your fellow man; therefore, I declare freedom from you, to the sword, the plague and the famine.”
Why are the consequences of this crime so harsh? What did Bnei Yisrael do that justified a removal of God’s protection in their lives, opening the door for sickness and death? God explains: “I made a covenant with your forefathers the day I took them out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, saying, ‘after seven years you must send your slave free…’” The defying of this specific mitzvah signifies the severing of the covenant God made with the past generation when they accepted God’s eternal authority over them when He freed them from Egypt’s bondage. When they stubbornly retained their mastery over their fellow Jews, they were in fact establishing themselves as their own masters and denying that Divine rule. Therefore, God, in turn, says that because they didn’t want Him, then He won’t be their master, and will not provide them a master’s protection; they can fend for themselves against the plagues and enemies of their world!
The aseret hadibrot began with the ‘reminder’ that ‘I am the Lord your God Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery there can be no other gods in my stead’ and only then enumerated the required behavior of this liberated nation. First and foremost the nation needed to appreciate that in taking them out of Egypt God had become their God, created them into His nation with a unique relationship that no other god can replace. And it is only with this correct awareness that they could then understand why they must follow the laws that He will demand of them. Mishpatim, the parsha of laws, follows this very same aseret hadibrot format – and its haftarah calls to our attention the significance of this parallel: in Yirmyahu, they denied the Master/servant relationship – formed during their exodus from the Egyptian enslavement – by establishing their own ‘master relationship’ when they disregarded the laws concerning Jewish slaves; in Mishpatim, the laws of Jewish slaves kicks off the massive collection of mitzvot as a perfect tone-setting reminder of what role the upcoming laws must play in their lives, inculcating within the people the fullest awareness of their true Master and His requirements of them.