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The Bondsman

The civil laws set forth in Parashat Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1-24-18) reveal that a Holy nation is a Just nation, one that enforces the rights of the victimized (an “eye for an “eye) yet even the thief or someone who lived recklessly and incurred debt can find restoration, as a bondsman (also translated as ‘slave’) who serves a master for a minimum of six years and can bet set free in the seventh year. According to the Talmud (Kiddushin 14a), if a bondsman managed to repay his debt before the end of the six-year period, he could be set free. The principle behind this is that the purpose of servitude is to repay the debt, and once the debt is fully repaid, the individual should be set free.


The master is also required to serve--as a moral guide who treats the bondsman as a member of the family--to the extent that, “To have a slave is to be a slave.” The Torah-mandated method is a Just alternative to the soul-killing modern penitentiary experience. Being a bondsman was also a path for escaping poverty, providing the stability and security of a good home. As Rav Kook taught, the bondsman, as mandated by Torah, “Enjoyed not only financial security but also moral and spiritual mentorship.” In the best sense, that is Israel's relationship with HaShem: a nation that seeks the security and guidance of the loving Creator.


The deeper connection to this master-slave relationship is revealed in this parsha's mention of, “…a paved brick work like sapphire” seen by the elders of Israel. This recalls pharaoh tricking the Israelites into servitude. The king staged a national ceremony, inviting the Israelites to join a building project. To make it official, pharaoh laid the first brick. It marked the beginning of Israel’s enslavement. The sapphire brickwork seen at Sinai marks Israel’s acceptance of a new Master, the loving, caring Creator who treats them as members of His family.


When Moses reads the instructions, from God to the people, they consent with one voice that they will, “Do and we will hear!" Thus was their total understanding and acceptance that true holiness does not function without action. Israel also reveals that they are the true descendants of Avraham Avinu whose trust in HaShem was unstinting. Israel understood that it is in the doing that they will dwell in holiness. Whether it’s dealing with the theft of a cow or celebrating a joyous festival in Israel’s eternal capital, when Israel follows God’s entire plan called Torah, it’s all holy.




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