More of the Revelation


The first few mitzvot of Parshat Mishpatim are not to make idols, not to build the sacrificial altar using base metal tools and to wear modest garments when ascending the altar.

These mitzvot hint at the three sins for which we must accept death rather than transgress: Idolatry, particularly public worship of false gods; murder, because the tools that could hew altar stones are also weapons; and gross sexual immorality, as uncovering nakedness is a euphemism for sex.

These three mitzvot, worshiping only God, respect for human life and respect for sexuality are fundamental to a sanctified Jewish life.

Mishpatim continues with many more mitzvot, but three of these reflect God’s covenant with Abram (Abraham). The terms are found in chapter 14 of Genesis and include conditions the ancient Hebrews will have to fulfill, and God will give the Promised Land to Abram’s descendants.

Abram is told his descendants will be strangers, they will be enslaved and they will be oppressed. In Hebrew, avdut (slavery), gerut (to be exiles, foreigners or strangers) and inui (oppression, abuse or humiliation).

Rabbi David Silber points to these conditions as essential to redemption in the Torah. Enslavement, exile and oppression — each time a person, or the entire Hebrew People, recognizes and acknowledges the fulfillment of these three conditions, God intervenes and redemption comes.

Just three months after the redemption from Egypt, Mishpatim teaches the consequent lessons.

If a Hebrew slave refuses to go free, “His master shall bring him before God, and bring him to the door, or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him forever.”

The ear pierced calls to mind the 10th plague and blood on doorway. The door of the house is the gateway to freedom, between being private property and a member of the community. This slave rejects God’s gift of freedom. God redeemed us from slavery so that we could become servants of God alone. No slave can serve two masters, so this slave is opting out of serving God, and thus unable to receive the promised redemption of the covenant.

We are commanded not to oppress the stranger, widow or orphan. “If they cry to Me, I will surely hear. My anger shall blaze, and I will kill you with the sword; your own wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.”

Mishpatim demands we learn from our own experience. We who have been slaves, oppressed and foreigners in a strange land must maintain our compassion for the powerless, no matter how far we think we have come from our humble beginnings.

Slavery, oppression and exile. “This is our experience, don’t forget it!”

Rabbi Joanne Yocheved Heiligman is a Columbia-based artist.

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