Saturday, January 29, 2011

D'var Haftarah for Mishpatim

This Shabbat was Sisterhood Shabbat once again at my shul. I was not on the planning committee this year, which meant much less angst for me. The day went very smoothly, and the guest speaker, Galeet Dardarshti, was wonderful. One of my roles was to deliver a "d'var haftarah" - a Haftarah introduction. This one was not easy to write, but I think it came out well in the end. Enjoy!

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This week’s Haftarah is from the book of Jeremiah. Like most Haftarah portions, it was chosen because it echoes some of the themes of the Torah portion. In the Torah portion that we just read, you might recall, there were a number of laws about the treatment of slaves. The Haftarah portion deals with a very specific instance of keeping and freeing slaves.

But let’s back up a little. What is all this about owning and freeing slaves? It is important to understand, first of all, that during biblical times, slavery was something that was accepted as common practice, even though it seems abhorrent to us today. In addition, there were different categories of slaves. Hebrew slaves were treated differently – and better – than non-Hebrew slaves.

So why would a Hebrew become a slave? Sometimes this was legislated through the court, to pay for a crime – or to pay off a debt – or even to escape poverty. In this case, the person would become a slave – really more like an indentured servant – and there was a time limit on this, six years. At the end of six years – in the seventh year – they would become free once more. Again, this practice sounds very strange to us, but clearly was common and acceptable at that time.

The laws in Mishpatim, in the Torah, actually are revolutionary in that they create a system of laws around how a master treats a slave, something that wasn’t found in other cultures.

So now back to the Haftarah. In this Haftarah portion, the upper class Hebrews of Jeremiah’s time were not following these laws we just discussed. They weren’t letting their slaves go after 6 years of service. Also, the city of Jerusalem, ruled by King Zedekiah, was about to be attacked by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. What happens next is very interesting The text reads:
King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people who were in Jerusalem, to proclaim freedom to them; That every man should let his manservant and every man his maidservant, a Jew and a Jewess go free, that none should hold his Jewish brother as a slave. Now all the princes and all the people who had entered into the covenant hearkened that every one should let his manservant and everyone his maidservant go free, no longer holding them in slavery; then they obeyed and let them go. But afterwards they turned and brought back the manservants and the maidservants whom they had let free, and forcibly made them into manservants and maidservants.
Two questions come to mind here: Why would the king decide to have the people free their slaves? And why would the slave owners then force them back again into slavery?

In my research for this talk, I found two explanations for freeing the slaves. The first explanation is practical: since the Babylonians surrounded Jerusalem, laying siege to the city, King Zedekiah released the slaves in order to increase manpower: the slaves could help defend Jerusalem from the Babylonians. Another explanation – more theological - is that the slaves were released – as they should have been anyway after 6 years - to appease G-d, to persuade G-d to be merciful during the attack by the Babylonians. Once the siege was lifted, however, the slaves were forced back into slavery.

Jeremiah reminded the people that just as they made a covenant with the King Zedekiah to release all of their slaves, God made a covenant with their ancestors after God freed them from slavery in Egypt. By taking their slaves back, the people renege on their covenant with Zedekiah, and on the covenant that their ancestors made with God.

The issue – here – isn’t the fact of slavery. It’s that the people didn’t follow G-d’s law of releasing slaves after 6 years, and that they broke their covenant. The fact that they refused to follow the law, and then went back on their promise is what made G-d so angry. And G-d is really really angry. A litany of bad things – which you can read for yourself in the text - will befall them for what they have done.

This is an interesting Haftarah alongside the Torah portion because it shows that setting down the laws (Mishpatim) are one thing, but actually following the laws is something else. The Torah sometimes shows an idealistic view of things, and we imagine the Jews in biblical times living a very moral life, following all the laws that are presented. In reality, following the laws wasn’t easy. The people in Jeremiah’s time didn’t want to give up their slaves every 6 years. They probably didn’t EVER want to give up their slaves. Jeremiah had to remind them of the covenant they had made, and threaten them with very harsh punishment if they didn’t obey.

The Jewish Study Bible
The Women's Haftarah Commentary
and others


Ms. Mess said...

Very interesting research. Thanks for pointing out several things I didn't know about biblical Jewish culture.

Amanda Siegel said...

Thanks! Enjoyed this. Thanks for taking the time to post it.