Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Mishpatim-Shekalim (Haftarah)

Mishpatim: the Release of Slaves

The regular haftarah for Mishpatim is taken from Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33: 25-26, a chapter dealing with the liberation of slaves, a subject that is the concern of the very first law that appears in this Torah portion. King Zedekiah made a covenant with the people whereby they would “call liberation” to all, sending free all of the Hebrew man and woman-slaves (i.e., “indentured servants,” who had sold themselves or been sold into servitude to pay off their debts). This does not seem to be the regular seventh-year release of servants, mentioned in the Torah (Exod 21:2-6; for a full picture of the Torah laws pertaining to slavery, see also there, vv. 7-11; Lev 25:39-55; Deut 15:12-18); rather, it was a special release, perhaps similar to that periodically proclaimed by the kings of neighboring countries, such as the andurarum announced by Mesopotamian kings upon ascending the throne. In any event, shortly thereafter the people went back on this release, and the slave-owners retook their freed slaves. The prophet decries this act, reminding the people of the law in the Torah, and warning them that, if they do not “set free” their servants, God will, with poetic justice, “set free” the sword, pestilence, and famine (v. 17).

What is interesting about this passage is that the peoples’ act is described using two of the strongest terms in the biblical lexicon: “desecration of my name” (v. 16) and “violation of the covenant” (v. 13, 15). Both of these terms are reserved for cardinal, central aspects of the Torah; their use here suggests that the liberation of servants is not just “another” civil law, but a central concern of the Torah. True, the Torah allows for servitude, under certain carefully delimited and well-defined circumstances, but the servant was granted so many privileges that the Talmud was moved to declare that “he who acquires a slave, acquires himself a master.” Nevertheless, as soon as their term is up, they must be allowed to return to their own lives as free people human beings. This law draws upon central concepts of the Torah: human dignity, stemming from man being created in the Divine image.

As if to reinforce the covenantal message in this context, the haftarah concludes by jumping backwards to two verses from the previous chapter: “If not my covenant of night and day, if I have not established the laws of heaven and earth….” (33:25-26).

It is a pity that, in a world that prides itself on its “progress” relative to the supposedly “benighted,” pre-scientific cultures of the ancient world, slavery is sill very much a reality: not only in the so-called “Third World” or underdeveloped nations, but even in the very heart of the western cultural orb. Right here, in the State of Israel in the year 2001, slavery is a reality: there are many foreign workers, brought into the country illegally, whose passports and other identification are confiscated by their employers, and kept in the most atrocious living conditions while forced to work for a pittance. Far more scandalous is the “white slave” trade, in which young women and girls are lured into the country under false pretexts, kept under duress, beaten, raped, often physically locked up day and night, and forced to work as prostitutes. Israel admittedly has many other pressing problems, but thus far the public outcry has been minimal, limited to a few small circles; the police are at best apathetic, and when they do act seem more likely to further punish, humiliate, and eventually deport these girls, rather than to hinder their “owner’s” activities in any significant way. (Those interested in contributing or otherwise supporting attempts to organize effective action against this shameful situation may contact me for details.)

Shekalim: “And let them take the money for the repair of the House”

But instead of the regular haftarah, this Shabbat one reads that for Parshat Shekalim, on which there is read as maftir the passage from Exodus 30:11-16 from which the Sages derive the obligation incumbent upon every Jew to bring an annual payment to the Temple treasury, the “half-shekel,” so as to participate in the costs of the public worship. The haftarah, taken from 2 Kings 12:1-17 (the Sephardim begin from 11:17-20), does not describe the collection of the half-shekel, but a closely related matter: the need to properly organize the collection of funds for the upkeep of the Temple, and the introduction of the first pushke (collection box) in Jewish history.

King Jehoash had issued instructions that any miscellaneous money brought to the Temple—whether from “valuations” (see Lev 27) or voluntary donations—should be used by the priests for repair and general upkeep of the Temple structure. After several years, he realized that this informal arrangement, in which each priest supposedly took money from “his acquaintances” for this purpose, was not working: the priests had totally neglected the upkeep of the Temple. When, even despite his imprecations, they failed to turn over the money for this purpose, Jehoiada the priest placed a large chest next to the altar and bored a hole in its lid, so that any money brought to the Temple would automatically be set aside for this purpose. When enough money had accumulated, the king’s secretary and the high priest took the money and gave it to the workmen—carpenters, masons, stonecutters—and spent it on materials needed to repair and maintain the Temple; this money was specifically not to be used for fancy new vessels of silver and gold—basins, snuffers, bowls, etc. Beyond the interesting information concerning the realia of the financial arrangements in Temple times, this chapter presents a revealing picture of the perennial problem of how to assure that public funds—in this case, sacred funds entrusted to the priests—are properly spent. Between the lines, we are made to understand that the priests were sidetracking the money for less worthy or urgent purposes, making it necessary to introduce this new arrangement. Whether the money went into their own pockets, or was spent on extravagant, ostentatious items for the Temple ritual, they seem to have been guilty of the all-too-human temptation of misusing money placed in their trust, particularly as this seemed to involve a gray area far short of outright theft. In any event, the people who were in charge of the distribution were respected as genuinely scrupulous, “and they did not ask an accounting of the men into whose hand the money was given, who paid it out to the workmen, for they dealt honestly” (v. 16).


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