Choosing Slavery (Mishpatim)

Choosing Slavery (Mishpatim)

Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them. -Jean Jacques Rousseau

The Jewish nation has escaped from the slavery of Egypt, they crossed the Sea, received the Ten Commandments. Now, one of the first commands after the pyrotechnic divine Revelation on Mount Sinai is the laws of…slavery.

The Jews had felt the whip of the slave-master on their backs. Slavery was extremely fresh in their memories. Just a few months prior they had been considered the property of Egypt.

God introduces to the world an entirely different concept of “slavery.” It is a temporary condition. A Jewish man, out of luck and resources (typically because he stole something and then couldn’t repay), becomes an indentured servant for six years. He must be treated well and cared for. He must have a quality of life equal to that of his master. However, if he becomes comfortable with his servitude and his master, he can request to stay on longer. The Torah prescribes that in such a case the master takes this slave to the doorpost and pierces the slave’s ear by the doorpost, marking him, branding him as a slave until the Jubilee year, when all slaves are freed, all men of Israel reclaim their ancestral lands.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 21:6 (Mishpatim) explains the rationale for the ear-piercing ceremony, as that namely a Jew should know better than to choose slavery, no matter how comfortable it may be. God took us out of the chains of Egypt to serve Him, not to serve human masters. The ear that heard God’s commands and disobeyed them will be pierced by the new master he’s chosen for himself. By piercing the slave’s ear, the master is following God’s command and demonstrating that at least the master is exclusively subservient to God and not to man. This was a fundamental principle, the principle of personal freedom and subservience only to God, which the slave was disregarding. Man is meant to live free and not be the slave of any other human being. It may seem ironic, but the Torah transmits the message that by serving God exclusively we thereby gain freedom from human domination. There is only one Master – God. Therein we can find our freedom.

May we choose who and what we serve wisely.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Marvin Rosen of Teaneck, NJ. I spent many special Shabbats at his home and at his table. May his family be consoled among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Useless Jails

Useless Jails

It isn’t true that convicts live like animals: animals have more room to move around. -Mario Vargas Llosa

prison

I had occasion to visit a Uruguayan jail and the cells of the least privileged inmates. To say that caged animals live better is a serious understatement of the physical, social, emotional and psychological hell the inmates go through. While being admitted to this prison is in fact a death sentence for many, those who do survive and get out, return to society as broken human beings, often even more dangerous to themselves, their families, their communities and society at large.

The Torah portion of Mishpatim dives into a plethora of civil laws, many of them dealing with violent crime. What is interesting and perhaps counterintuitive to our society is that amongst the variety of punishments – execution, lashes, making reparations, and a prominent case which includes a period of indentured slavery – a prison sentence is never mentioned.

Rabbi Hirsch on Exodus Chapter 21 in his characteristically eloquent style explains:

“Prison sentences, with all the attendant despair and moral debasement behind prison bars, with all the woe and misery that imprisonment inflicts upon the prisoner’s wife and children, are unknown in God’s Law. Where God’s Law holds sway, prisons as an abode for criminals do not exist. Jewish Law provides only for detention pending trial, and even this can happen only in accordance with a judicial procedure set down in detail. Such a detention can be of short duration only, and circumstantial evidence is inadmissible.”

“But even this solitary case (of indentured slavery), in which the Law decrees loss of freedom as the consequence of a crime, cannot be construed as a “punishment.” The purpose of this law cannot be punishment because it sentences the thief to six years’ servitude only with the purpose of making restitution for the actual value of the theft.”

Rabbi Hirsch elaborates further that the slavery comes into play only if the value of what the thief stole is in excess of his working capacity. Additionally:

“The victim of the theft has the right to waive restitution derived from the sale of the thief and to content himself with a signed promise from the thief to pay restitution as soon as his material circumstances improve.”

Prison is not the solution. It even likely exacerbates the problem.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Martín Correa González and all the other dedicated workers in the Uruguayan prison system.

Smart Jews

 If a man’s eye is on the Eternal, his intellect will grow. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

brainThere has been much written extolling the intelligence of Jews on one hand, and on the other hand analyzing the historical reasons for such a phenomenon. In his Commentary article “Jewish Genius,” Charles Murray argues that the reason for Jewish intelligence harks back to the very founding of Judaism as a law-intensive community. The requirement to be proficient, educated, literate in a plethora of detailed laws forced Jews as a people to develop levels of intellect unparalleled in the ancient world.

The Sfat Emet in 5635 (1875) mentions that Moses was apprehensive about the Jewish people being able to learn all the details of the Torah. However, at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai the Jewish people exclaim famously, “we will do and we will listen,” classically interpreted as we will accept the commandments and then we will learn the details.

The Sfat Emet says that God vouched for the people of Israel and assured Moses that they would be able to cope with all of the laws. But the Sfat Emet states that there is a catch to this ability to comprehend the laws, and it is intrinsic to the statement of “we will do and we will listen.” In order to understand God’s laws, we must first accept them, before we understand them. We must be willing to undertake this mission, to accept the “yoke of Heaven” before we can hope to comprehend His laws. Only after we have submitted ourselves to God can we understand Him and His detailed Laws. Trying to understand God before accepting Him is unlikely to ever work.

May we be intelligent enough to bring God into our lives and reach greater levels of understanding of the divine.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Createspace. An incredibly smart publishing solution that I am so happy to be using.

 

Smooth Talkers

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/mishpatim-smooth-talkers/

Baal Haturim Exodus: Mishpatim

Smooth Talkers

We kill everybody, my dear. Some with bullets, some with words, and everybody with our deeds. We drive people into their graves, and neither see it nor feel it. -Maxim Gorky

There are people, who through the power of their personality, their charisma and their eloquence can get unsuspecting victims to do something of their own free will that may go against their own interests and well-being. The reason they are influential is because humans on a whole are a trusting species. Our society would disintegrate if the foundation of trust did not underlie basic human interactions.

However, there are some opportunists that take advantage of this visceral trust, play upon people’s feelings and beliefs and sell them something which is simply not real, not true. The Baal Haturim on Exodus 21:14 compares these smooth talkers to false prophets. The false prophet would often prophecy what the people wanted to hear. They would soothe their fears and not confront them with the reality ahead. Not warn them of the error of their ways in time for them to correct it and save themselves. The false prophets doomed themselves and their followers to oblivion.

The Baal Haturim compares both the smooth talkers and the false prophets to murderers. By betraying the trust people put in them, they are killing them. They are destroying the relationship of trust that connects them to life. In some cases they even lead them to actual death.

May truth and honesty always be our hallmark.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the honest people in our lives. You are a beacon in an often hazy and dark world.

 

 

 

Cursing’s Legacy

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/mishpatim-cursings-legacy/

Netziv Exodus: Mishpatim

Cursing’s Legacy

“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us.” -Umberto Eco

It is often something of a national pastime to criticize and even curse our leaders. They are easy punching-bags upon which to vent all of our complaints and grievances with the world. Even if the faults are true, there is little that such grumblings accomplish.

The Torah warns us against cursing ones rulers. The Netziv learns at least two lessons from that particular commandment. On Exodus 22:27 he states that the prohibition against cursing the leadership is specified exactly because it is so easy, natural and common. The second lesson is a bit deeper with longer-term implications.

On Exodus 22:28 the Netziv prophesizes that a man who refrains from cursing his leaders, whether they be political or religious, will merit to have a son who will himself serve God via lay or religious leadership. There is something in the act of showing restraint, respect and deference to our leadership that cultivates and empowers the next generation to take on the mantle of leadership.

If leaders are the subject of constant disparagement at home, why would any child, even unconsciously, seek or even consider higher ambitions? Just so that he should become a subject of idle discussion and inane criticism? No. It is only the child that is spared and shielded from such negativity that dares rise above the mundane, and in the words of the Mishna, “Be a man where there are no men.”

May we help cultivate future leaders.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Jewish lay leadership of Uruguay, and specifically to Sara Winkowski, the force behind the successful introduction of the pre-nuptial solution, who never gave up on her mission. I am constantly humbled and inspired by the leadership’s dedication to the community.

Divine Moisturizer

[First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/mishpatim-divine-moisturizer/]

Ibn Ezra Exodus: Mishpatim

Divine Moisturizer

“You can free yourself from aging by reinterpreting your body and by grasping the link between belief and biology.”-Deepak Chopra

The clock of our doom starts ticking from the moment of our birth. Our genetic program will determine our height, health and longevity. There seems to be little one may do to extend ones natural lifespan, while there is no lack of factors that will shorten our lives.

Ibn Ezra (on Exodus 23:26) rejects such deterministic views. He claims and provides a physical explanation as to how a person can extend the life they were born to have.

He states that a body will live as long as it has internal heat and moisture. Once the heat and moisture run out, the body dies. Artificial additions of these physical measures will not help. But there is one thing that can: cleaving to God. The metaphysical dynamics are as follows: Attaching oneself to God increases the “heat” and “moisture” of the spirit. The “heat” and “moisture” of the spirit are then converted into real heat and moisture in our bodies that will prolong physical biological life beyond its original program. A cold, dry spirit withers. A warm, fluid soul flourishes.

Ibn Ezra states further that not only will clinging to God extend ones natural life, but it can also safeguard a person from accidents and epidemics that may curtail life.

I’m willing to work on it…

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Seymour Hirschfield, father of our friend and neighbor Zvi (Hal) Hirschfield.