If the Torah is so adamant that we be kind even to a thief, how much more so should we be kind to our friends and neighbors!
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This week’s Torah portion is “Mishpatim” (Exodus 21:1–24:18), and in it we read about the Jewish civil code, commandments that are categorized as being “between man and man” – namely, how people are meant to treat each other. Honesty in business, moneylending practices, damaging other people’s body or property, animal care and much more is covered in this week’s reading. In fact, over 50 of the Torah’s 613 commandments are found in this week’s Torah portion.
It is noted, that, oddly enough, the slew of “between man and man” commandments begins with the laws on how to treat slaves. Why? There are so many more commandments in the reading that are far more practical, relevant and applicable than the laws of slaves. Indeed, God Himself must have known that slavery would not be around forever, and hence, limited in their applicability.
Among the answers given is that a slave was often the result of an individual who had been caught stealing but did not have the means to pay back for the theft or damage he caused. Hence, one of the messages of the slavery-related commandments is to remind us how important it is to respect the property of others. We must be careful to treat other peoples’ possessions as if they were our own. A person who has respect concerning the property of others would never find himself as a slave.
It is this fundamental idea that is an appropriate introduction to interspersonal relations and damages. The message of the slave is the message of how to treat another human being. It teaches us how a society must function. As such, it is indeed an appropriate introduction to the laws “between man and man.”
But there’s more. In most societies a thief – and, in our discussion, the thief-turned-slave – is abhorred and shunned. But not so in ancient Jewish society, where the thief-turned-slave was to be treated especially well. For example, the Talmud teaches that if a person has only one pillow, he must give it to his slave rather than take it for himself! There are many more examples on how a slave is to be treated with dignity.
And if the Torah and Jewish law are so adamant that we be kind even to a thief, how much more so should we be kind to our friends and neighbors!
For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below:
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