We hope you enjoy this selection of short divrei Torah, presented to family and guests at our Shabbos table as a springboard for discussion. Each one is followed by a question. The responses shared at our table are enlightening, entertaining, and always thought-provoking.
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Parshas Mishpatim # 1
The Hebrew Servant
“And these are the laws that you shall put before them. If you buy a Hebrew servant, for six years he will work, and in the seventh [year] he will go out free” (Shmos 21:1-2).
After the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, Moshe Rabbeinu taught the Jews many halachos which would govern their conduct in numerous areas of their lives. First on the list were the laws of an eved Ivri, a Jewish servant. Jews are servants of the Al-mighty, but under certain circumstances, may end up in the unenviable position of being servants to fellow Jews. This can happen when a thief is unable to repay what he stole. Beis Din sells him for a six-year period, with the proceeds of the sale going to reimburse the victim of the theft. Another possibility, discussed in Parshas Behar (Vayikra 25:39-43), is when an impoverished person sells himself as a servant, as a desperate last resort when he has nothing left.
Why, of the Torah’s many laws, does Parshas Mishpatim begin with eved Ivri?
The Ramban gives two reasons. The first is that freeing the eved Ivri in the seventh year commemorates the Jewish people’s liberation from Egyptian bondage at the time of the Exodus, mentioned in the first of the Ten Commandments (Shmos 21:2; see also Midrash Aggadah and Kli Yakar ibid.). The second is that it commemorates Creation, corresponding to Shabbos. Shabbos, the seventh day, is a day of rest, and the servant rests from his master’s work in the seventh year (Ramban and Rabbeinu Behayye ibid.).
We can also suggest that the laws of eved Ivri are given such prominence in the Torah to teach us the importance of responsible handling of our financial affairs. The life of the Jews in the desert was miraculous in every way; they were free of the burden of providing their own material needs. Their food literally fell from Heaven, their water came from Miriam’s Well, and their shoes and clothing did not wear out during their forty long years in the desert. Once they arrived in Eretz Yisrael, where the laws of eved Ivri would take effect, they would undergo a drastic change: as landowners, they would be obligated to support their families by natural means.
The parashah of eved Ivri highlights the dangers of being irresponsible with money. Failing to invest the necessary effort in work, or living beyond one’s means, can lead to disaster. In the worst case, one can become so utterly destitute that he is reduced to selling his own freedom in order to survive, or to stealing. For his part, the master is bound by Torah law to treat his Jewish servant well, protecting his dignity and not overworking him (Vayikra ibid.). Even so, as the Ibn Ezra writes, “there is nothing more difficult for a person than to be owned by another person” (Shmos ibid.).
The forty-year sojourn in the desert was an era without equal. When it ended, the Jewish people in all subsequent generations would still be dependent on Hashem, but their way of life would be different. Ever since, it has been up to us to earn a living by our own labors, and take proper care of whatever financial assets we are blessed with. This includes responsible spending, staying out of debt, and more.
Question for Discussion:
What is a lesson that has helped you learn to handle money responsibly?
My father made a special effort to teach his children the importance of saving and spending wisely. When we were growing up, we would receive Chanukah gelt from our grandparents, and birthday and bar mitzvah money. My father offered to match any sum that we deposited in a savings account in the bank, instead of spending. Every dollar we would put away, automatically became two.
I still have very vivid memories of depositing small amounts of cash, or on occasion, $5, $10 or $18 checks in the Bank of America on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. My father, true to his word, happily took on this expense to help us appreciate the advantages of handling money well. I remember the joy of seeing my small deposits double on the spot, and then grow even further with the bank interest. My siblings and I learned that money was a gift from Hashem to be used with care, not wasted.
Parshas Mishpatim #2
Buying a Master
“If you buy a Hebrew servant, for six years he will work, and in the seventh [year] he will go out free” (Shmos 21:2).
The Torah makes provisions for the purchase of a Jewish servant (eved Ivri) under specified conditions. The purchaser of such a servant actually takes on something of a burden. He is obligated to provide the servant with respectable room and board, support the servant’s wife and children, and protect his health and wellbeing. He cannot mistreat him or give him a job which would be demeaning, or even put him to work doing anything outside his field of expertise. On top of all that, the “master” can only keep the servant for six years, unless the servant himself decides that he would like to stay on longer… As Chazal so plainly put it, “One who purchases a Hebrew servant, purchases a master for himself” (Mechilta, Shmos 21:2; Vayikra 25:39-43, Rashi; Kiddushin 22a; see Rambam, Hilchos Avadim 2:12).
Realistically, why would anyone bother with such a “servant”? It would be much more practical to buy a Canaanite slave. He too should be well treated, but the purchase is permanent, with far fewer strings attached (Vayikra 25:44-46; Rambam, Hilchos Avadim 9:8).
And yet, as we learn from the Ohr HaChaim, the Torah instructs us to choose a Jewish servant over a non-Jewish servant: “If you have the option of buying a Canaanite slave or a Hebrew servant, give precedence to the Hebrew... Do not say, ‘I will buy a servant that I can put to work forever, and not buy a servant that I [must] release after six years’” (Ohr HaChaim, Shmos 21:2; Mechilta D’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai ibid.).
An eved Ivri is a man who has hit rock bottom. He is either so poor that he has no choice but to forego his freedom (Vayikra 25:39), or has sunk to theft (Shmos ibid., Rashi). These six years are an opportunity for him to get back on his feet, while his family is provided for. Is it the ideal setup for the master? No, not really. But it is an important, lifesaving chesed for the servant, and the Torah teaches us that this chesed comes first.
Tuning Out the Yetzer Hara
Buying an eved Ivri may not be easy, but it is a chesed. Shimon Yaakov, a former talmid at Ohr Somayach, pointed out that the yetzer hara tends to interfere with potential acts of chesed. It skillfully convinces us that whatever we want to do to help out is too difficult, too time-consuming, and not our problem to begin with.
However, he said, we can gain valuable understanding of the workings of the yetzerhara from the laws of gittin (divorce). For a get (halachic divorce) to be valid, it must be given of the husband’s free will – if it is granted under coercion, it is invalid. Under certain circumstances, if a man refuses to grant a divorce, Beis Din can administer lashes until he says, “I want to give the divorce.” This is not considered coercion, and the divorce is entirely legal (Yevamos 106a). This ruling seems surprising – if a whipping by Beis Din is not “coercion,” what is?
The Rambam explains. Deep down, he writes, every Jew really wishes to do what is right; the problem is that his yetzer hara gets in the way. The whipping serves to subdue the yetzer hara, removing the impediment and allowing the husband to willingly fulfill his obligation (Hilchos Gerushin 2:20).
Shimon Yaakov said that the same is true of helping others. We want to do it, but our yetzer hara intervenes and tries to stop us. We need to find a way to tune it out and go ahead with the chesed.
Question for Discussion:
Doing favors can be troublesome, costly, and at times, even unpleasant. We learn from the Ohr HaChaim that we should try to do chesed despite the inconvenience. When did you give or receive a chesed that was not easy to grant?
Tommy, a student at Ohr Somayach: Lately, I have been the recipient of chesed on a daily basis. My morning coffee gets me going for the day’s learning, but I ran out of disposable coffee cups, and have not had the time to get out to the store to restock. Every morning, someone else “donates” a cup. Some of my fellow students have twenty, thirty, or even fifty cups, and are happy to help. For them, it is an easy chesed, while the benefit to the recipient – me – is huge. This is a point worth considering with every type of chesed: the gains can far outweigh the difficulty involved.
“David” commented that the fewer cups someone has, the more difficult it becomes to give one away. For example, if he has just three and gives one to a friend, he will have only enough left for his next two cups of coffee. If he gives away one of his last remaining two, he personally is left without a cup for the following day.
Tommy’s reply was insightful: I think it depends on how you look at it. When I consider only the cup, it is hard to give it up – if I give away my last one, my friend has it, and I don’t. But when I consider the chesed aspect, my perspective changes. If I keep it, I have a cup, but there was no chesed. If I give it away, at least my friend does have a cup, but with an added bonus: an act of chesed for me.
Yonatan, a yeshiva student: I received a chesed from a total stranger that really made a difference. I was on a flight from Montreal to Frankfurt on my way to Israel. Due to a change in my itinerary, I did not have a kosher meal ordered for the eight-hour flight from Montreal, extended even further due to delays. Another frum passenger passed by my seat and noticed that I did not have a meal. He asked why, and I explained. He then told me that he had more than enough snacks with him for the flight, and happily gave me his own kosher meal, which was still untouched. His spontaneous chesed, accompanied by a genuine smile, saved me from a very uncomfortable situation.