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Parsha Mitzvot: Mishpatim: Which Child?

“Matis! No, Aviva! No, Yehudis! No, Miriam! No, Naomi! Simcha! Take out the garbage!” I wondered whether my mother sylyt”a was certain of my name. It usually took her a few tries before she got the right name when requesting me to do something.

I was frightened the first time I went through a similar process: “Shoshana! I mean Betzalel! TL! Gilit! Anna! Oriel! No, Mikey! Take out the garbage!” I knew my children quite well. I named them. There I was having trouble getting the correct name. I’ve hear my siblings do the same thing with their children, but as with me, never with grandchildren.

I mentioned my experience to my friend Rabbi David W. who laughed as he remembered his mother going through the same process, although with a shorter list. His theory is that when parents are ordering their children to do something, they cease to see their offspring as individuals, and treat them as, in his words, “Child labor.”

One of my uncles, a wise and righteous man with nine children, was filling out a form on which he had to list all his children, and he forgot the name of one. (He never told anyone which name he forgot.) His theory was that he was so focused on his responsibilities at the moment, that he forgot to view his children as individuals.

I can’t count the number of times I heard parents tell a story about one of their children only to be corrected by their kids as to which child was the real subject of the story. I don’t believe that my friend’s theory about child labor, or my uncle’s explanation of responsibilities, explains all the instances when parents forget a child’s name.

Our portion tells the tale of a father who has forgotten his child’s name: The man who, in financial desperation, sells his daughter as a slave. I find it astounding that the Torah chooses this tragic story as the context to teach a husband’s obligations to his wife: 1) Love, 2) Food, and 3) Clothing.

The sale of a daughter comes with the understanding that the purchaser or his son will marry the girl/woman. The desperate father is compelled to consider his daughter’s future at that horrible moment. He may not sell her to someone who will simply use her as a maidservant. She may not work as a maidservant after she becomes a woman at twelve-years-old.

She may only be sold to work for a man who is willing to make a lifelong commitment to her. Only such a commitment allows the purchase of the maidservant. She is not “purchased” for her work; there are limitations to how much work we can expect from such a young girl.

The “Purchase” must be a statement of commitment: “I will care for you more than you experienced from your father. He may have forgotten your name. I never will. My commitment extends ‘beyond’ your father’s.”  That ‘beyond’ is inherent in every marriage; it is a promise of more, better, beyond. The ‘beyond’ means that a marriage will never remain what it was yesterday. It will always be a promise and an expectation of more.

The husband’s obligations are presented as a negative commandment: He may not deprive her of HER food, HER Clothing, Her Time. A relationship that lacks the commitment of ‘beyond’ will soon lead to deprivation – a loss of what is already there. The Torah is telling us that it is either “beyond” or “Do not deprive.” There is no middle ground.

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