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This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.
In Yitro, Bnei Yisrael received the headlines – the Aseret Hadibrot. And now in Mishpatim, we get the details. The first law? The treatment of slaves. There are 613 commandments in the Torah. Why begin here? Why does Mishpatim – the first full law code in the Torah – begin with the laws of slavery?
The Israelites have just endured slavery in Egypt. God had already told Avraham it would be part of their narrative. This was the necessary first experience of Bnei Yisrael as a nation. From the very start of the human story, the God of freedom sought the free worship of free human beings. But one after the other, people abused that freedom: first Adam and Chava, then Kayin, then the generation of the Flood, then the builders of Bavel.
God began again, this time not with all humanity, but with one man, one woman, one family who would become pioneers of freedom. Still, freedom is difficult. We may each seek it for ourselves yet deny it to others when their freedom conflicts with our own. So deeply is this truth that within three generations of Avraham’s children, Yosef’s brothers were willing to sell him into slavery: a tragedy that did not end until Yehuda was prepared to forfeit his own freedom so that his brother Binyamin could go free.
It took the collective experience of Bnei Yisrael, their deep, intimate, personal, backbreaking, bitter experience of slavery – a memory they were commanded never to forget – to transform them into a people who would no longer turn their brothers and sisters into slaves, a people capable of constructing a free society, the hardest of all achievements in the human realm.
So it makes sense that the first laws they were commanded after Sinai related to slavery. It would have been a surprise had they been about anything else. But now comes the real question. If God does not want slavery, if He regards it as an affront to the human condition, why did He not abolish it immediately? Why did He allow it to continue at all?
The 2008 book Nudge addresses a fundamental problem in the logic of freedom. On the one hand, freedom depends on not over-legislating. It means creating space within which people have the right to choose for themselves. So how do you stop people from doing harmful things without taking away their freedom?
There are subtle ways in which you can influence people. In a cafeteria, for example, you can put healthy food at eye level and junk food in a less accessible place. You can subtly adjust people’s “choice architecture.”
That is exactly what God does in the case of slavery. He doesn’t abolish it. Rather He sets in motion a process that will lead people to abandon it of their own accord. A Hebrew slave is to go free after six years. If the slave wishes to remain enslaved, then he is required to undergo a ceremony in which his ear is pierced, a visible sign of his decision. Slavery in Judaism is not illegal but it’s clearly not the ideal, and it should not be a lifelong fate.
Why allow slavery? Because people must freely choose to abolish slavery if they are to be free at all.
God can change nature, said the Rambam, but He will not change human nature, precisely because Judaism is built on the principle of human freedom. So He could not abolish slavery overnight, but He could change our “choice architecture”, or in plain words, give us a nudge, signalling that slavery is wrong but that we must be the ones to abolish it, in our own time, through our own understanding. It took a very long time indeed, and in America, not without a civil war. But it happened.
There are some issues on which God gives us a nudge. The rest is up to us.
Around the Shabbat Table
- Can you think of examples in your life where “choice architecture” influences your own decisions?
- In what ways do you think God “nudges” us towards certain paths? Can you think of any other time in the Torah when God guided Bnei Yisrael towards a certain moral choice?
- If you could create a new rule for everyone to follow, what would it be, and why?
Parsha in Passing
After Bnei Yisrael received the Aseret Hadibrot at Har Sinai, God presented a series of detailed laws to His people.
These laws cover many aspects of social and religious life, including the treatment of slaves and laws addressing crimes like murder, kidnapping, and theft.
The laws also extend to the fair treatment of foreigners, guidelines for celebrating the chaggim, and the appropriate korbanot in the Beit Hamikdash. Laws of kashrut, like the prohibition of cooking meat with milk and the importance of tefillah, are included as well. The laws teach us responsibility too, like how landowners are in charge of making their property safe for others. If there is a pit on your land, cover it so others won’t fall in. If you have a flat roof that people might fall from, put up a fence.
Most importantly, God also promises to lead Bnei Yisrael to Israel, and reminds them that when they finally reach the Promised Land, they must avoid the avodah zarah of Israel’s current inhabitants. Bnei Yisrael commit to obeying God’s Torah by saying, “We will do, and we will hear.”
Next, Moshe leaves Aharon and Hur to lead the camp while he heads up Mount Sinai, where he will stay for forty days and nights to continue receiving the Torah from Hashem.
The Mitzvot: From the moment you wake ‘til the time that you sleep, we are the rules which God asks you to keep.
The Slave: I’ve served and I’ve laboured for six full years. Now at year seven ‘I love my Master,’ I cheer. So I stay right here, ear pierced, no fear. A sign of commitment, sincere and dear.
Bnei Yisrael: The commandments we’ve got, the details we will jot. To God we stay true, His mitzvot we will do.
The Thief: Stealing I dare, a grievous affair, but caught in the act, no way to retract, consequences severe, and payment is clear.
In Parshat Mishpatim, Rabbi Sacks delves into the concept of “choice architecture,” highlighting how, although we hold the reins of decision-making, God gently steers us towards ethical choices, through the mitzvot He bestows upon us.
This delicate balance between free will and Divine guidance inspires our journey of making decisions that positively impact those around us.
In a way, it’s like a parent gently guiding a child to make good choices while allowing the child the freedom to choose their own path. Through the mitzvot we have been taught, and the options we are given, we hopefully learn to always steer ourselves towards the moral path throughout our lives.
- Which of the mitzvot you follow hold an ethical lesson within them that you internalised through living Jewishly?
“Stuck in a Pit, Shabbat Shalom It!” This game links to the halachah of covering pits on your property – so no one falls in.
Choose one player to be ‘It’. This player must run around and tag as many other players as possible. When tagged, a player becomes ‘stuck in the pit’; they cannot move and must stand with their legs and arms apart. The only way to be freed is for a non-tagged player to high-five them and wish them a Shabbat Shalom. The game ends when all players are tagged and ‘stuck in the pit’ OR all the players are freed and able to form a safe circle and chant, “Shabbat Shalom, Shabbat Shalom!” together.
There is a plethora of mitzvot to be found in Mishpatim. Fifty-three to be exact. Everything from the laws of Shmittah (giving the land of Israel a rest every seven years), to the laws of Shabbat (our own personal day of rest). Bnei Yisrael are told about the rules of murder, the rules of kashrut, the rules of theft, and even the unexpected commandment that we shouldn’t trust a sorceress.
The unifying theme shared between all fifty-three of these commandments is how we treat the people around us. “Don’t kill” and “don’t steal” might be the most obvious ones. Still, the Torah so scrupulously details the ways in which we can avoid treating others with unnecessary cruelty.
Kindness to others is not always easy, and it’s not always clear. There will be many times in our lives when extending kindness is challenging or even morally complex. But beginning every interaction with an open mind, empathy, and understanding is an excellent place to start.
- How do you think being able to relate to someone else’s experiences changes how you interact with them?
- What do you think it means to give someone the benefit of the doubt?
Parshat Mishpatim centres around finding ways to ensure the people around us are treated with the utmost dignity and kindness. This idea is found even in the sweetest of stories about a girl and her crunchy sweet apples.
“Muuum! Where are you?” Ahava called to her mum.
“I’m up here!” came the response.
Ahava bounded upstairs, excited to tell her mother about her day. “Guess what! Batya and I were allowed to help her big brothers pick some fruit from their apple trees. And we worked so hard, Batya’s parents said I could choose two of my very own to keep and bring home!” she announced, still panting from running all the way upstairs.
Then Ahava pulled two shiny red apples out of her bag and held them proudly aloft, one in each hand. Her mum came over to her, smiling at her young daughter. “Wow Ahava, those look fantastic, you chose really well! So what will you do with them? Would you give your mum one of your apples?”
Ahava looked up at her mum for a few seconds, and then suddenly, without warning, she took a big bite out of one apple. Then she bit into the other apple as well.
Her mother felt the smile on her face freeze. She tried hard not to reveal her disappointment at this. But then the little girl handed one of her apples to her mum and said, “Here you go, mum. This is the sweeter one.”
What Would You Do?
Imagine a situation where someone steals your most prized possession. Later, they return it and apologise profusely. How do you react? How do you treat them moving forward?
Question: We are permitted when separate but forbidden when together. What two things could we be?
(See below for the answers)
This Week’s Parsha Puzzle Answer:
4 possible answers: (a) Eating meat and eating dairy, (b) wearing wool and wearing linen, (c) using an ox and a donkey to plough your field, and (d) eating 2 different fruits is allowed, but they may not be grafted together.
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks