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Exodus The Virtuous Circle of Ethical Sensitivity

By Rabbi Nehemia Polen
Nehemia Polen

Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

The set of community regulations collected in Exodus 21: 1- 23: 33, which make up the bulk of Parshat Mishpatim, shows many points of similarity with other ancient legal collections from the Ancient Near East, such as the famous Code of Hammurabi. But, as scholars such as Moshe Greenberg and Nahum Sarna have pointed out, there are significant differences as well, such as the avoidance of capital punishment for theft and other crimes against property.

This set of laws begins with those governing debt servitude for the eved ivri, the Hebrew “slave”. This institution is troubling to us modern readers—why would the Torah condone any form of slavery, especially just after the Exodus from Egypt? The historical context here is important; in a society without banks or state welfare, debt servitude “serves a necessary social and economic function… [providing] a way for struggling households to borrow essential resources …” (Carol Myers, Exodus, p. 190). And it was generally limited in time, for six years.

The hasidic masters of the 18th and 19th centuries, looking to find fresh meaning in these ancient laws, characteristically take the approach of spiritualization: Servitude is interpreted as an enslavement to one’s own desires, appetites, and illusory fears—and the goal is liberation, freeing oneself to be a servant of God and to fulfill one’s truest, noblest goals.

The Sefat Emet —Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, known as the Gerer Rebbe (1847-1905) understands this section as addressing the very nature of interpersonal relationships (bein adam la-havero) and their connection to the transcendent realm. Our ethical commitments must precede Torah—the divinely-given rules and rituals. Our sensibilities and intuitions in the area of human interaction set the stage for our ability to receive and comprehend Torah—divine wisdom. But then our deeper understanding of Torah allows for a more fully realized human stature.

We have here a reciprocal process: ethical living leads to greater wisdom, which in turn cultivates deeper ethical sensitivity. This recursive relationship yields an unending, virtuous circle of inner growth and outer moral action. For the Sefat Emet, the regulations of this parashah must be read as a beginning, not an end. Their goal is the improvement of the human condition, and this vision always provides a beckoning horizon yet to be achieved.

Regarding the topic of servitude specifically, the Sefat Emet suggests the following aspiration: Don’t fashion a “yoke” for another person; don’t place burdens on others that don’t belong to them, but to you. This for the Sefat Emet is the true lesson of the section on the Hebrew slave—enslaving another (for example, through psychological and emotional manipulation) is worse than causing loss to their property.

The reading of our parashah as a call to ever-greater ethical sensitivity received a rich expression not only in Hasidism, but throughout the world of Eastern European Jewish culture. I am reminded of a particular story, connected to a bit of family history:

Both sets of my grandparents were from the area of Belarus (White Russia) near Brisk (Brest-Litovsk). My mother’s mother recounted stories about Rabbi Hayyim Soloveichik of Brisk (1853-1918), famed for his analytic mode of Talmud study, which he also applied to Maimonides’ great law code, the Mishneh Torah; Soloveichik’s memorable readings are landmarks of conceptual elegance, studied assiduously in yeshivot to this day. But when I asked my grandmother about her memories of Rabbi Hayyim, she knew nothing about his talmudic acumen. The only thing she recalled—and this was very vivid—was his open heart and compassion for the poor of the town. He left his precious wood store unlocked in the winter, and he fed widows and orphans; abandoned babies would turn up at his door and he would take them in, raising them as part of his family.

One winter day, Rabbi Hayyim was giving a shiur (a lecture) to his yeshiva students, when the door burst open and a woman ran in, shouting loudly at the rabbi: “Where’s my wood? You always provide wood for my stove, and I’ve run out!” The students considered her demeanor inappropriate, even unhinged. But the rabbi closed his volume of Talmud, grabbed his coat and left the study hall, returning about forty minutes later. The condition of his clothing made it obvious that he had personally carried wood to her home.

The students challenged him, saying: ”She should have shown some respect, and not interrupted the class!” Rabbi Hayyim replied by citing a passage from the Mishneh Torah,(Laws of Gifts to the Poor, chapter 10); the entire chapter is based on our parashah and on other sources that call for active involvement in the plight of the poor, not just charity, and concern for their dignity as well as their economic situation. In sections three and four of that chapter, Maimonides writes, “One must always give joyously, graciously, lifting up the spirits of the person in need…It is forbidden to scold the poor person or to raise one’s voice at him…Woe to him who embarrasses the poor person, woe to him!”

Rabbi Hayyim, always a careful reader of Maimonides’ language, pointed out to the students the repeated words in this formulation: “Oy…oy lo; woe…woe to him!” Rabbi Hayyim reminded his students that Maimonides was meticulous about every word, and so must have deliberately invoked the same word of warning twice. “I did not,” he said, “want to violate Maimonides’ two ‘oys’”. 

Even when our patience may be tried, even in the face of provocative behavior, we are called to act with grace and respect to those who turn to us for help. We are obligated to avoid any hint of subordinating another person, relating to the most vulnerable with the most dignity. Our responsibility for the dignity (and, as the Sefat Emet would have it, the inner freedom) of others is unending, demanding ever-deeper levels of awareness and sensitivity. This is the goal of Torah.

Dr. Nehemia Polen is Professor of Jewish Thought at Boston’s Hebrew College. He is the author of The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto (Jason Aronson, 1994, 1999), and is a contributing commentator to My People’s Prayer Book, a multi-volume siddur incorporating diverse perspectives on Jewish liturgy (Jewish Lights). He received his Ph.D. from Boston University, where he studied with and served as teaching fellow for Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.

Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.

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