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Haftarah: Mishpatim: Power!

Jeremiah 34:8-22, 33:25-26 – “And God spoke to Moses and Aaron and commanded them regarding the Children of Israel and regarding Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 6:13) Rabbi Shmuel, the son of Rabbi Yitzchak, said, “What did God command Moses to teach Israel? He commanded Moses to teach them the laws of setting free their slaves.” This is consistent with Rabbi Hila who taught, “Israel was only punished during the time of Jeremiah because they violated the laws of freeing their slaves.” (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 3:5)

At the very beginning of Moses’ instructions, he spoke of the laws of freeing slaves. He spoke to slaves, people who would understand and could relate. In this week’s portion, Mishpatim, inserted into the middle of Revelation, God again speaks of these laws. The people were free. They knew both slavery and freedom.

The laws of slaves address the basic human drive for power. Even as slaves, the people would dream of having power over others. Now, with their recent freedom, they must again hear God’s warning against this drive for power.

This Haftarah describes Jeremiah speaking to people whose freedom was threatened by the Babylonians that they had to surrender the power they had over others so that they could be free. They listened: “All the leaders and the entire people who entered into the covenant hearkened, that every man should set free his bondsman and every man his bondswoman, not to enslave them further; they hearkened and they sent them off.”

It did not last: “But after that they reversed themselves and brought back the bondsmen and bondswomen whom they had set free, and subjugated them as slaves and maidservants.” The people could not resist the temptations of power.

How appropriate an idea for the portion that teaches us about a system of justice and courts! There are many forms of power, including the power of a judge to declare someone guilty and to sentence him to punishment.

How appropriate a message at Revelation, when God offers Israel the opportunity to become a “Treasured Nation,” and a “Kingdom of Priests.” We know well the power of religion, the power assumed by religious passion and conviction.

“So says God, Were it not for My covenant, day and night; had I not established the laws of heaven and earth – then I might abominate the offspring of Jacob and David.” (Jeremiah 33:25) There are laws to this world. There is a system. The laws and system protect Israel, as long as they are not violated by those so thirsty for power that they reject the Covenant that recognizes God as the Only Power.

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