A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation
What would you expect the continuation of the Torah to be after the awesome experience, the revelation, we had at Har Sinai? Would you expect a series of instructions about how to maintain and possibly increase that level of spirituality? Maybe laws about sacrifice, prayer, how to build a temple? If we were another culture, indeed that is what you would find. Those seeking spirituality in other cultures separate themselves from society, materialism, and the physical world, occupying their time with offerings to their gods, prayer, and contemplation. To find immediately after revelation a series of civil and criminal laws should make us aware of the purpose of thatrevelation.
God revealed Himself to us on Har Sinai to establish Am Yisrael as a ‘kingdom of priests’ and a ‘holy nation.’ But not like priests of other nations who have rights and authority above the rest of humanity, or are holy through being imbued with intrinsic sanctity. We, the nation of Israel, are priests in the sense of role models, and holy in the sense of being distinguished through our proper behavior. Being Am Yisrael is not a right; it is a responsibility to model a relationship with God within society.
The first term of the sefer haberit concerns the lowest class of our society, the ebed ibri, the Jewish bondsman. The ebed ibri in our perasha is someone who stole, possibly to feed his family, and now must work in servitude to repay his debt. One could imagine that this ebed ibriwould not be given special rights and privileges. Yet, God puts as one of the first terms of our berit that even if this ebed ibri was sick for two or three years out of his six year contract, and you had to pay his doctor bills, you cannot dock his pay or ask him to cover his doctor bills. That is what it means that at the seventh year he goes “free,” free as in hinam, he does not owe you anything, and his debts are cleared from his contract (Hilkhot Abadim 2:17).
There is one more situation of an ebed ibri. That is when one sells himself into servitude, which is only permissible under very specific circumstances. One can only become an ebed ibri if hehas absolutely nothing, no food, or even a change of clothing. In such a situation, the Torah allows one to enter into an ebed ibri agreement.
He may sell himself only when he needs the money for his very livelihood. A person is not permitted to sell himself unless he has no property remaining at all – i.e., even his clothing no longer remains. Only in such a situation may he sell himself (Hilkhot Abadim 1:1).
The ebed ibri are those in extreme poverty. They have no money to feed or clothe themselves, and in some situations are caught stealing to survive. The Torah does not instruct us to punish these individuals; rather, our Torah prescribes an avenue of rehabilitation. They are given a home, food, and shelter among a well-established family who can act as a role model.
These servants must be treated with dignity. Although they are servants, they must be treated asyour brother, as stated in Debarim: “When your Jewish brother will be sold to you.” One cannot ask this servant to do meaningless or demoralizing labor; he must be treated as one with rights as it says: “Do not have him perform servile tasks (Vayiqra 25:39).” We are concerned about this man’s self-image and dignity.
Furthermore, one is obligated to care for the servant as one provide for oneself and his own family, as Rambam states:
The master should not eat bread made from fine flour while the servant eats bread from coarse flour. The master should not drink aged wine while the servant drinks fresh wine. The master should not sleep on cushions while the servant sleeps on straw (Hilkhot Abadim 1:9).
Every member of our society, especially those who have little or nothing, even if they have stolen, need to be taken care of. God, as part of our berit with Him, put terms to ensure their welfare. This point is so important and is one our Hakhamim wanted us to understand well. That is why Yirmiyahu 34:8 was chosen as the haftara for perashat Mishpatim. There, Benei Yisrael decide to do teshuba, and what is the one thing they choose to fix?
“That every man set free his bondsman and his bondwoman, the Jew, and the Jewess…”
In Yirmiyahu, Benei Yisrael were instructed to free their Israelite servants who had been working for them for more than seven years. Thus, they were oppressing the downtrodden and those who were having difficulty in their lives. That was a breach of the first term in the berit. The first term makes it very clear that on the seventh year the ebed MUST be set free. The message is that our fellow should be taken care of, not only those who are our friends and who share similar circles of interest, wealth, and class but those who lack means and ability to take care of themselves. It is our obligation to help them get back on their feet. It should be noted that the ebed is not allowed to remain as a servant. The goal is to enable him to eventually care for himself. When being set free, the master must give the servant a gift. This is a misva deoraita as it states in Debarim: “You shall certainly give him a severance gift.” The goal is to ensure the servant has the means to start his own life. Not only does he leave servitude out of debt, but he also has some money to become his own man.
Our Har Sinai experience could be likened to a climb up the ladder to God, similar to the malakhim in Ya’aqob’s dream who went up the ladder. These malakhim, like us, then come down the ladder to walk in God’s way down on earth. That is what the misva vehalakhta bidrakhav, to walk in God’s ways, means. The path of God is one where a person interacts with others with mercy, patience, and kindness. To know God and have a relationship with Him is to be imbued with His traits.
To be a person or a nation of God is to ensure the welfare of every member of our society. Abraham Abinu, our paradigm of a man of God, stood up in defense of people he had no connection to in order to protect them from a possible injustice. God wanted Abraham to express this trait and therefore told him about His plans so that his future nation will follow the path of God to do justice and righteousness (sedaqa umishpat) [Beresheit 18:19]. This message can be found throughout the Torah, Nebiim, and Ketubim. One example from Hoshea: “For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.” It is our societal behavior and the applying of our knowledge of God’s traits of compassion and mercy that God wants to see from us.
Our knowledge of God is meant to lead to a society where there is no longer predator and prey, where the unprotected live comfortably without fear of oppression, and the unfortunate are lifted up. Imagine a world filled with this type of knowledge of God. This is the world that we envision. This is what nebiim like Yeshayahu prophesied about.
“And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them…They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea [Yeshayahu 11:6-9].”
The revelation at Har Sinai, the pinnacle of our spiritual experience, is meant to help us create a better society, to ensure that the oppressed and downtrodden are protected and taken care of. Our experience of God is for us to learn His ways, live by them, become a model nation, and have the rest of the world follow suit.
Rabbi Meyer Laniado