The Haftarah of Mishpatim tells the story of how, just a few years before the destruction of Jerusalem, wealthy slave-owners released their Jewish slaves, only to recapture them when the situation quieted down.
G-d’s response is the following:
כֹּה אָמַר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אָנֹכִי כָּרַתִּי בְרִית אֶת אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם בְּיוֹם הוֹצִאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים לֵאמֹר:
מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים תְּשַׁלְּחוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו הָעִבְרִי אֲשֶׁר יִמָּכֵר לְךָ וַעֲבָדְךָ שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים וְשִׁלַּחְתּוֹ חָפְשִׁי מֵעִמָּךְ וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם אֵלַי וְלֹא הִטּוּ אֶת אָזְנָם:
So says Hashem, the G-d of Israel: I made a covenant with your fathers,
on the day that I took them out of Egypt, out of slavery, as follows:
At the beginning of the seventh year, you shall send away your brother, the Hebrew, who has been sold to you; he will have worked for you for six years, then you will send him free from you. Your fathers did not listen to me, and did not pay attention (Yirmeyahu 34:13-14)
Which covenant is G-d talking about, “on the day that [He] took us out of Egypt”?
First of all, “on the day that I took them out of Egypt”, does not refer to just that one day. The phrase Yetziat Mitzraim, the Exodus, refers to the entire experience from the beginning of the Plagues until the Jewish People entered the Land of Israel. Therefore, when looking for this covenant, we are not limited to the actual day of the 15th of Nissan.
Instead, the phrase refers to the Exodus as a whole, which was, as stated from the very beginning of Shemot, that Hashem would take Israel to be His people, and be their G-d. This was done by means of a covenant between G-d and the Jewish People, and took place at Sinai. The description of this covenant is found in Parshat Mishpatim:
וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע:
וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַדָּם וַיִּזְרֹק עַל הָעָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה דַם הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת ה’ עִמָּכֶם עַל כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה:
[Moshe] took the Book of the Covenant; he read it into the ears of the people.
They said, “All that Hashem said, we will do and we will listen.”
Moshe took the blood, threw it on the people; he said, “This is the blood of the Covenant, that Hashem has made with you, based on all these things.” (Shemot 24:7-8)
What was in this “Book of the Covenant,” and what were “all these things” upon which they based their agreement to enter into the covenant with G-d?
Many of us are familiar with Rashi’s opinion, that these events, even though they are recorded in Parshat Mishpatim, actually took place before the Ten Commandments were given, that they committed to “we will do and we will listen” on pure faith, and that “all these things” that Moshe read to them was a record of the miracles of Exodus.
However, Ramban and Ibn Ezra insist on interpreting these chapters in chronological order. According to this view, which is the simpler reading of the text, the covenant follows the Ten Commandments, as well as the laws listed in Parshat Mishpatim. When the Jewish People said, “we will do and we will listen,” they knew very well what they were committing to do. Parshat Mishpatim contains a representative sample of the commandments such as laws of fair conduct in business and interpersonal relationships, laws of justice and morality, and laws of Kashrut and holidays. G-d wanted them to understand what they were signing up for, and had Moshe read it all out to them – “into their ears”, making sure that they heard clearly – before they entered the covenant.
What was the very first of the laws that Moshe read to them?
וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם:
כִּי תִקְנֶה עֶבֶד עִבְרִי שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים יַעֲבֹד וּבַשְּׁבִעִת יֵצֵא לַחָפְשִׁי חִנָּם:
And these are the laws that you should put before them:
If a person buys a Hebrew slave, six years he will work, and on the seventh will go free. (Shemot 21:1-2)
The commandment to limit slavery was the first among the commandments that formed the basis of the covenant. Additional laws in this chapter in Mishpatim limit the owner’s ability to exploit and oppress his slaves, especially female slaves .
One might have expected the Jewish People, as former slaves in Egypt, to be particularly careful to observe this commandment, to show extra empathy to their slaves and be only too glad to limit or even abolish slavery altogether. However, the Haftarah tells us that it was not kept by the Jewish People, at least not by generations prior to Yirmeyahu’s time: “your fathers did not listen to Me; they did not pay attention, says G-d.”
So when King Tzidkiyahu forced them to make a covenant to release their slaves, and they listened to him and did so, we might have thought that this would actually make G-d somewhat upset. He might have sent a prophet accusing them of caring more for an earthly king than for the King of Kings. He might have been disappointed that the original covenant at Sinai was not sufficient for them and they needed a new one to make them keep this commandment. Instead, we are told that G-d was unreservedly pleased by their actions:
וַתָּשֻׁבוּ אַתֶּם הַיּוֹם וַתַּעֲשׂוּ אֶת הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינַי לִקְרֹא דְרוֹר אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ וַתִּכְרְתוּ בְרִית לְפָנַי בַּבַּיִת אֲשֶׁר נִקְרָא שְׁמִי עָלָיו:
Today you returned, and you did the right thing in My eyes, by proclaiming liberty, each man to his fellow, and you made a covenant before Me, in the house upon which My name is called. (Yirmeyahu 34:15)
They did “the right thing in His eyes”, they freed the slaves, and G-d was proud of them.
Alas, as great as the pride, such was the magnitude of the disappointment.
When they recaptured the slaves that they had freed, not only did they do an evil and repugnant deed, not only did they break the covenant that they had just made with King Tzidkiyahu, they spit in the face of the Covenant of Sinai itself. They did not fail to observe a random commandment, they took the very first commandment that they signed up for, and violated it in the worst way possible.
Instead of showing the empathy to slaves expected of the Jewish People, they acted as if they had no recollection of the Exodus or of their mission to be the nation that does “the right thing in G-d’s eyes.” They rendered the entire covenant between G-d and the Jewish People, null and void.
Mercifully, the Haftarah does not end with this fiasco, but rather with the following verses:
כֹּה אָמַר ה’ … גַּם זֶרַע יַעֲקוֹב וְדָוִד עַבְדִּי אֶמְאַס … כִּי אָשִׁיב אֶת שְׁבוּתָם וְרִחַמְתִּים.
So says Hashem… would I reject the offspring of Yaakov and My servant, David…? For I will return his captives and have mercy upon them.
It is a very good thing that G-d has infinite patience. It is a very good thing that He knows that we are capable of more, that our commitment to Torah can be renewed. The Haftarah’s ending tells us that G-d’s commitment to us is eternal. We can mess up, our actions can be disastrous and detestable, but He will find a way to get us back. The destiny of the Jewish People will continue. G-d Himself will make sure of that.
 People often ask why G-d did not skip this intermediate step and just outlaw slavery in the first place. This is not a question that we can answer without a deep understanding of the economics of the time. It is not fair to anachronistically judge those generations through a world view which is based on opportunities that were not available to them. Anyway, we see that even this commandment was beyond their abilities.
Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל