“Therefore, this is what the LORD says: Since you have not obeyed me by setting your countrymen free, I will set you free to be destroyed by war, disease, and famine. You will be an object of horror to all the nations of the earth.” — Jeremiah 34:17 NLT
The Torah portion for this week is Mishpatim, which means “laws,” from Exodus 21:1–24:18, and the Haftorah is from Jeremiah 34:8–22.
In the opening verse of this week’s Haftorah from the book of Jeremiah, we learn that King Zedekiah had just ordered the people of Israel to free all their slaves. The rest of the selection revolves around the theme of slavery, and this is the connecting link between the Haftorah and the Torah reading which began with the laws regarding slavery. Beyond the surface, there is an important message for us as well.
But first, some background. This scene took place just before the Southern Kingdom of Judah was sent into exile. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had laid siege around Jerusalem, signaling that the exile was about to begin. In response, Zedekiah, king of Judah, commanded his people to free their slaves. The people obeyed his command, and sure enough, the Babylonian threat disappeared.
However, instead of turning to God in gratitude, the response of the Jews was to force their just-freed slaves back into slavery! This greatly angered God, and His response was to hand the Jewish people over to the Babylonians. God told His people, “Since you have not obeyed me by setting your countrymen free, I will set you free to be destroyed by war, disease, and famine.”
A few questions: First, why was Zedekiah’s response to the Babylonian threat to decree that all slaves must go free? Didn’t we just read in Exodus 21 that enslavement was permitted under the right circumstances? Second, even when the Jews reinstated the slavery under forbidden conditions, why was this particular sin singled out? Jewish tradition teaches that the people were involved in all kinds of terrible misdeeds – why focus on slavery?
The answer to the first question is that while slavery was permitted as a temporary solution in extreme cases, it was never meant to be permanent. As we read in Exodus 21, all slaves were to be set free after six years. But in Zedekiah’s times, this law was not observed, and he sought to correct it.
But why the focus on this particular misdeed?
Once, a man approached Hillel the elder and asked, “Tell me the entire Bible while I stand on one foot.” Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else.” Indeed, the Bible does come down to this simple Golden Rule.
Slavery, especially when forced, is the antithesis of God’s Word and His will. That is why it was singled out.
Our Bible contains many words and thoughts and commands; there is no shortage of commentaries to study and ponder in order to better understand it. But let us never forget that it all comes down to how we treat one another. And that can basically be boiled down to a rather simplistic phrase that we have been taught over and over again — by our parents, by our teachers, and by our God: Be nice to others!