This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18.
The events leading up to the revelation at Sinai include the 10 plagues, Pharaoh relenting to Moses and the exodus to freedom by the former Hebrew slaves.
A shared experience seared into the souls of the people begins a transformation of slaves into a free nation. The revelation at Sinai demands allegiance to the God who has redeemed us (purchased us with love) in order to bring us closer.
The acceptance of the law and the giving of the law separate what came before from the present and the future. The nature of these many laws and ordinances establishes a system of justice and defines the new nation.
Among the very first laws include the fair treatment of bondsmen. Exodus 21:7 says, “[A master] shall not have the power to sell [a bondswoman] to a strange man.”
In Exodus 21:10, we learn that if the master takes on another bondswoman, it may not be at the expense of the other woman: “He shall not diminish her food, clothing or her marital relationship.”
These laws, which immediately follow the section on the Ten Commandments, suggest that many of these protections were not afforded the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, where we assume slaves had no rights at all.
Rashi comments that if the master were to inflict injury on a bondsman or bondswoman, he would be required to pay damages.
Rashi further elaborates that a young bondswoman’s family has the right to buy her freedom, and the master must assist them by reducing the amount of her redemption compared to the amount originally given to her family.
The rights of a woman or girl remain in full force, and the responsibilities of the master who purchased the woman are the same as for any woman, bondswoman or free.
The rights of the individual outlined here are in the context of ancient attitudes toward women, bondsmen and bondswomen. In this context, these laws are just, enlightened and compassionate. They protect individuals from abuse, and they set up a fair method of compensation and restitution.
Mishpatim (ordinances) gives hope to those victimized by circumstance that the law defines both obligations of the masters and bondsmen, as well as the rights of those who were subject to these ordinances in ancient times.
Laws of Torah based on our shared humanity continue to have great force in our time, demanding a just balance while protecting both sides of that balance.
Questions for discussion
In what ways do our laws define us as a people and as a nation?
What laws do you consider important beyond the Ten Commandments?
Should anyone be given special consideration in a court? For example: A poor individual over a rich individual? A president over an immigrant?
Are we all equal before the law in the eyes of the Torah?
Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is a composer of opera and symphonies, and a member of the Education Director’s Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.