In this week’s Parsha the Torah details a myriad of pecuniary laws, which include torts and damage law, as well as the laws of physical injury and impairment compensation. A nation that has just emerged from a brutal enslavement surely needs a strict code to discipline their freedom.
We would have expected that after Matan Torah, this weeks Parsha would begin, perhaps with an in depth mitzvah to do with belief in Hashem, or perhaps to do with Pesach. However, we are surprised to see that the first thing the Torah mentions is the Mitzvah of Eved Ivri – a Jewish slave.
“When you will acquire a Jewish servant, he shall serve six years and on the seventh he shall go free.” (Exodus 16-1)
It is astounding. The Jews just spent the last 210 years as slaves. Why would they even entertain thoughts of taking servants? Of all the laws dictated to a newly liberated people, shouldn’t the concepts of masters and servants be loath to them? Why are those laws given first?
Furthermore, Chazal tell us that this law of Eved Ivri was first mentioned to Moshe, when he first went to Pharaoh. (vayetsavem el-beney Yisra’el ve’el Par’oh melech Mitsrayim lehotsi et-beney-Yisra’el me’erets Mitsrayim 6:13). Hashem told Moshe that just as He was commanding Pharaoh to set free the Bnei Yisrael, similarly in the future there will come a time where the Bnei Yisrael will be commanded to set free an Eved Ivri once every Shemita (seven years) and Yovel (50 years). What is the connection? Surely, the mitzvah of freeing the Jewish slaves would not be enforced for the next 54 years (40 years in the wilderness and then for the 14 years in which it took to conquer and settle the land). What was so important that Hashem wished to convey us this Mitzvah at this particular time?
HaRav Nebenzahl Shlita explains that Hashem wished to convey us these important laws specifically now, when the Bnie Yisrael were in the midst of servitude. He wished to give them the mitzvah, at a time when they felt how unpleasant, harsh and downtrodden it was to be a slave. When a person has just experienced an unfortunate occurrence, then he/she can relate to others that are experiencing the same occurrence. This allows them to connect and feel for them much more, and this is why Hashem gave them the mitzvah now, whilst the idea of slavery was still fresh in their minds.
This idea reoccurs throughout the Torah, and in this weeks Parsha in particular. We are similarly told of the mitzvah not to oppress a Ger – newcomer, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20), again as a fresh reminder to their status and how we should remember how we felt to be a stranger in a foreign land.. David Hamelech states: Ashrie maskil el dal Tehilim (41:2) – happy is the clever one who considers the weak. Chazal derive from the word Maskil that we need to approach the poor with Sechel – intelligence. Each poor man or women is different, has different necessities and therefore should be approached differently. As the Torah states Et HaAni Imach – we must consider the poor man as one of us, we ourselves should put ourselves in their position, how would we feel? The Gaon, Elijah Chaim Maizel, of Lodz, would personally visit the homes of the wealthy people in his town and collect large sums of money for the poor. Once, during a very severe cold winter, the community needed additional money to purchase wood for the poor. Many families were practically without heat and were dangerously sick because of the lack of funds. The Rabbi undertook to personally visit the homes of the rich, he went to the wealthiest person in the town, Kalman and knocked on the door. The rich man answered and offered the Rabbi to come in. However, the Rabbi would not enter, he had some important matters to discuss with him and time was of the essence. The rich man waited while the rabbi began to discuss local politics as well as government affairs. Finally, the rich man couldn’t contain himself any longer. Rabbi, he cried, please come into the house. I am shivering and I’ll become deathly sick from this cold. But the Rabbi would not budge. Now I will tell you the real reason for my visit, said the Gaon. Many poor families are also shivering from the cold, I came to you for a large donation to help the poor of our town. You name the amount and I’ll give it, said the rich man, nearly turning blue from the cold.
Only after having tasted the shivering cold, could Kalmans entire attitude change, as only then did he fully realise the extent to which the poor were suffering.
The Chachmei Kabalah write that before praying one should state that he accepts upon himself the mitzvah of VeAhavta LeReiAcha Kamocha – loving our neighbour like ourselves. Our prayers are not just for ourselves, on the contrary we find that the prayers are all mentioned in the plural, we pray for Refua shelema for all of Am Yisrael, for Geula for all our people. Yet in order to connect and really feel what we are praying it is important to first state before we pray that we really do feel for our people, we really do love them, to the extent that we are one with them. When we pray RefaEnu, we feel for all those in hospital, when we state Teka Beshofar Gadol Lecherutenu we feel for all those of our nation imprisoned.
This is the message of the Parsha. We received the ten commandments with a great deal of noise, Shofar blasts, thunder, spiritual awakening, yet we must always relate to our previous situation as a nation in servitude, we must always feel for our fellow Jews in all types of situations, and as Chazal have promised us, those who join in times of sorrow (Mishtatef Betsar) will (Mishtatef BeSimcha) join in times of happiness.