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Home » Mishpatim

Mishpatim: Modern Relevance of Ancient Texts

Submitted by on February 22, 2006 – 2:56 amNo Comment | 2,482 views

Striking the Slave

This week’s Torah portion reads like a book of law on subjects such as  property damage, personal injury and halachic jurisprudence.

Among the laws of personal injury we find the following verse, “If a person strikes his male or female servant in the eye and injures it, he shall set the slave free in compensation for the eye. If he dislodges a male or female slave’s tooth, he shall set the slave free in compensation for the tooth.” (1)

These laws seem irrelevant in a society that has abandoned the practice of slavery. Yet a central tenet of our faith is that G-d and his Torah are eternal. How can the Torah maintain its eternal relevance with laws that often seem outdated?

The divine words of Torah have physical application as well as spiritual meaning. Beneath the surface understanding of the legalistic text lie layers of meaning and  spiritual application. When changes in our physical circumstances render a particular law irrelevant, we must turn to the law’s spiritual parallel.

Gaining Dominance

After the deluge, when Noah exited the ark, he planted a vineyard, produced wine, drank his fill and fell into a deep slumber. Ham saw his father lying naked and told his brothers, whereupon the brothers went and covered their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke he cursed Ham and damned him to eternal servitude to his righteous brothers. (2)

Ham, who used his eye to see his father’s nakedness and his mouth to gossip about it, needed to learn how to rule over his temptations rather than to be enslaved by them. Ham, a metaphor for temptations of sight and sound, was therefore enslaved to his brothers, the metaphors for righteousness. (3)

From his brothers Ham learned discipline and with this Noah bequeathed us the ability to subdue our temptations. We often fall prey to desires that are triggered by the sights we see. We are often tempted to speak in ways we know we ought not. Tempted we may be, but we are not shackled to these desires. We are able to master them and to draft the powers of sight and speech into the service of righteousness.

Nevertheless, there are times when the servant gains dominance over its master. Where righteousness should master temptations, temptations master righteousness. (4)

These are the times when we feel compelled to indulge in those sins that we lust after, when we cannot deny ourselves the temptations of which we have caught a fleeting glimpse, when we cannot refrain from sharing a delicious piece of gossip or an enjoyable morsel of slander that we accidentally overheard.

It was over this that the prophet Jeremiah lamented, “The servants hold rule over us and we find no rescue.” (5) When the servants, our temptations, take over and rule over the master, then the master must strike back and incapacitate the eye and ear’s ability to tempt us. How is this done?

There are two paths, The first is short but long, the second is long but short.

Short but Long

The short but long path is to implement a full alert and impose regular vigilance over  what we see and hear. This path is short because the problem is immediately solved. But it is also long because the remedy lasts only as long as long as we are  motivated. When our vigilance slacks off, the problem resurfaces and we need to start again. This makes for a long journey.

Long but  Short

The second path is to call for a full internal audit of our spiritual well being. Why is the heart tempted to those things that are only of temporal value? Why are we enamored by sights and sounds that are stimulating on the surface but devoid of meaning?

Why does the heart not grow excited over the opportunity to immerse itself in Torah study? Why does the heart not skip a beat when an opportunity for prayer presents itself? Why are we not as tempted to help the lady across the street as we are by all manner of licentious pleasure? Why do we care so much about ourselves and not enough about G-d?

The answer is that we don’t devote enough thought to G-d. Let’s pause for a moment and reflect that G-d created our world and filled it with distractions of all kinds. He then created us and informed us that we will reside in this world for a number of decades.

During this time we can choose to lay the foundation for the eternal edifice, the exquisite pleasures and the divine ecstasy that await us in the world to come or we can choose to distract ourselves with all manner of temporal pleasures. These pleasures will stimulate us for the short duration of our stay, but when we arrive in the next world we will find ourselves stripped of all merit and unable to partake of its eternal pleasures.

At that time we will question the decisions we made in this world. Was the delicious, but non-kosher ice cream cone worth the price we paid?  Was the temporary pleasure of sharing a morsel of gossip worth the price we paid? We gained twenty minutes of pleasure, but lost an eternal Mitzvah.

If we choose to ignore the gossip and the non-kosher food, it will cost us a few moments of frustration, but we will earn eternal merit in the world to come. When we stand before G-d and are asked to justify our choices, we will want to be proud of the choices we made.

This path is long but short. It takes a long time to adjust to this point of view. It is not easy to live life by these values. But it is ultimately the short path. Once we choose it, we need never worry about temptation again. How can one be tempted by weak, temporal pleasures when powerful pleasures await us for eternity?

This  is the inner meaning of the verse quoted earlier. The master is the Jew; the servant is temptation. Temptation is brought about by the sights and sounds that we hear and see. The master strikes the servant through reflecting on the temporal aspect of these pleasures and incapacitates its eye and tooth by removing their ability to tempt us. The slave is then permitted to go free because he holds no sway over us. (6)
Have you ever experienced your own emancipation?


  1. Exodus 21: 26-27.
  2. Genesis 9: 20-23.
  3. See R. Bachye (R. Bachya ben Asher, Saragossa, Spain, 1255-1340) on Exodus 21: 26.
  4. Where the heart should rule over the eye sometimes the eye rules over the heart. As our sages said, “The eyes see and the heart desires.” See Jer. Talmud Berachos 1; 5.
  5. Eichah 5:8. See also Eicha Rabba, ibid. and Pirkei D’ R. Eliezer, ch. 23 and 24.
  6. Loosely based on Commentary of B’er Mayim Chayim (Rabbi Chaim Tirar, Chernowitz, 1760 – 1817) on Exodus 21: 26-27.