Although this year we will not be reading the Haftora for parshas Mishpatim, because a special Haftora for parshas Shekalim will be read, I am still publishing this article on the Haftora of parshas Mishpatim. There is a valuable lesson to be learned from it.
The Haftora for parshas Mishpatim is from the book of Yirmyahu. Tzidkiyahu king of Yehuda made a proclamation to free all Jewish slaves, because by Torah law a Jewish slave must be freed after six years, but the powerful and the rich made it their custom to keep Jewish slaves perpetually. After freeing them, they had a change of heart, recaptured their Jewish slaves, and placed them back into servitude.
Hashem then gave Yirmyahu a prophecy, that because they are enslaving their brothers and sisters against Hashem's will, they will suffer horrible consequences, including the sword, pestilence and famine. Tzidkiyahu and his nobles would be placed in the hands of their enemies, namely the king of Babylonia, who would also capture Jerusalem and burn it.
The connection to our parsha is that parshas Mishpatim opens with the laws of Jewish slaves, that they go free after six years. Because the Haftora focuses on this specific point, that means that it is the central theme of our parsha.
How is the law of Jewish slaves the central theme of our parsha? And what lessons are here for us, in a time when there is no more slavery?
After parshas Yisro, and the giving of the Ten Commandments, parshas Mishpatim is the start of the general laws between people. Most of these laws are understandable, as common sense dictates them as well. It begs the question, why did Hashem choose to begin these laws with the laws of Jewish slaves?
The question becomes stronger when you consider that at the time that they were given this law, there was no possibility of owning a Jewish slave.
There are two ways that a Jew can become a slave. Either he is so destitute, he sees no way to survive, other than selling himself as a slave. Or if he steals, and does not have the money to pay back what he stole, the court would sell him as a slave for the amount he owed.
When the Jewish people left Egypt, they all left with tremendous wealth. Seven days later, after the splitting of the sea, they became even richer, because the Egyptians would adorn their war horses with gold, silver and jems. After they drowned in the sea, Hashem made all the valuables wash up on the shore. There was so much that even when it was time to continue on to Sinai, they didn't want to leave.
Just 43 days later they received the Torah at Mount Sinai, and right after that, they were given these laws. So no one was destitute, and if someone stole, he would surely have been able to pay back.
On top of that, during the 40 years in the desert, Hashem took care of their basic needs. There was the manna from heaven, water from the well of Miriam, and the clouds that surrounded them, took care of their clothes. So no one was destitute.
With all this said, why did Hashem choose to begin these laws with the laws of Jewish slaves, which was totally irrelevant at that time?
We must conclude that there is something so basic found in these laws, that it serves as the foundation of all the laws that follow. What is this basic idea?
We know that our forefathers learned and kept the Torah and mitzvahs even before the Torah was given at Sinai. So what was unique about the Sinai event?
The Midrash tells us, that the main thing that happened with the giving of the Torah, was that the decree, that what is above can't go below and what is below can't go above, was abolished. In other words, before the giving of the Torah, although they did mitzvahs, it didn't affect the physical world. Now, when we do mitzvahs, it does affect the physical world, infusing it with G-dliness. That was what happened in last week's parsha, Yisro.
In this week's parsha, the actual work of refining the world, making it into a dwelling place for Hashem, by infusing it with G-dliness, begins. It has the most mundane laws, because Hashem wants to dwell in the most mundane, and he wants us to make it livable for him. Not to change it, but to bring out its true potential. This is our main service to Hashem, to bring Him into every part of our lives.
When a Jew becomes a slave, or when a Jew forces another Jew to be a slave, he is undermining the fundamental purpose of a Jew, to serve Hashem in every aspect of his life.
It is one thing when a person is destitute, or when he finds himself in a position, that he has no way to feed himself and his family, other than stealing. Hashem made a provision for that, he could become a slave for no more than six years. After that, if he wants to stay longer, the owner is to pierce his right ear, because as Rashi explains in the name of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, "...This ear that heard on Mount Sinai, 'the children of Israel are Mine, they are My servants,' and yet he went and acquired for himself (another) master, should be pierced,"
The fundamental idea in this law, that comes before any other, and is the foundation of all the rest of the mitzvahs in the parsha, and for that matter, the whole Torah, is that we have to be free to serve Hashem, and no other.
In the Haftora, when the powerful were enslaving their Jewish brothers and sisters, keeping them for more than six years, Hashem says that they will be given into the hands of their enemies and the city would be captured, in other words, they will be in exile. This is not a punishment, it is the consequence of their actions. Since the Jewish people were enslaved, they couldn't serve Hashem, making a dwelling for Hashem, which brings redemption. Therefore, the opposite would happen, they would go into exile.
Although there is no slavery today, there are those who enslave themselves to their business affairs. They forget that it is only a means to a greater end, serving Hashem. They are so endentured to their business, that even during times of prayer, Torah study and Shabbos, when one is meant to serve Hashem, they are thinking of how to get ahead in the rat race. They have chosen to remain slaves, even after the time of business is up.
Hashem wants us to be free to serve Him, and not to any other, not even to our desires or false notions.
The Haftora ends on a positive note. Even though they will go into exile, Hashem will never forget the covenant He made with the Jewish people. He will return them to their land, and have mercy on them.
May we soon see the completion of our service to Hashem, when He will dwell openly in the home we created for Him, through our Torah and mitzvahs, and through bringing Him into every aspect of our lives, with the coming of Moshiach. May he come soon.