“Therefore this is what the LORD says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the LORD — ‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth.”—Jeremiah 34:17
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.
This week’s Haftorah reading begins with the same theme of the Torah reading: how to treat slaves. Why the emphasis on slavery? There is an obvious connection to the fact that in the Torah portion, the Israelites had been slaves themselves and so they must be empathetic and treat slaves fairly.
However, the Haftorah reading takes the importance of treating slaves fairly one step further. The children of Israel were told that they would be conquered and exiled for the sin of treating their slaves inappropriately. Instead of freeing them in the seventh year, as commanded in the Torah portion we had read earlier, they kept them enslaved. What made this sin so grave?
According to Jewish tradition, there is a list of questions that every human being will be asked after passing on to the next world. The very first question is: Were you honest? Not, “How much time did you spend studying the Bible?” Not, “How much did you pray?” What God wants to know, first and foremost, is “Were you an honest person?”
God wants to know if we were fair and honest in business dealings – never cheating and never stealing. He wants to know if we spoke only words of truth to each other and about each other. He wants to know if we presented ourselves to others as who we truly are – without any false pretense or underlying hypocrisy. God wants to know if we lived a life of integrity and if we treated our fellow human beings appropriately.
Because how we treat others is what matters most to God.
Scripture teaches us, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The laws about how we treat slaves is a direct application of this biblical injunction. While some people may think that servants – or today’s maids or waiters or others who serve us – are second-class citizens who we have the right to use, God says, “NO.” These people are our equals, our partners, and how we treat them is just as important – if not more important – than how we treat anyone else.
Jewish law takes this idea so seriously that there are laws requiring that a servant be treated just as well as his master. The servant gets the same size room, with the same fluffy pillow, and eats the same food. In fact, if there is only one piece of steak in the house, it goes to the servant!
The emphasis on slavery in these readings is to drive this point home: How we treat others is of paramount importance. So let’s make it our focus this week to ensure that we treat everyone – especially those who serve us – with the respect, kindness, honesty, and the dignity that they deserve.