The first mishpat - commonly translated as ‘ordinance’ in our Parasha - relates to the עבד עברי: the Jewish slave bought from the hand of the Beit Din, because he has stolen, and is unable to repay that which he stole.
We read:(21:1-4) ’If you buy a Jewish slave, he shall work for six years; and in the seventh he shall go free, for no charge. If he shall arrive by himself, he shall leave by himself; if he is the husband of a woman, his wife shall leave with him. If his master will give him a woman and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out by himself.’
Rav Eliyahu Shlezinger comments:’All of the parshanim stand on this point: what did the Torah see, to start its words on the ordinances, specifically on the subject of ‘the Jewish slave’.’
Rav Simcha Zissel from Kelm sweetens the question, adding: ’Would it not have been more appropriate to begin the Parasha of ordinances, by talking of charitable people, like those who lend money to the indigent, or to those who look after the goods of others for no charge, both of which are discussed later in the Parasha, and not with a thief who is sold by the court, because of his transgression?
‘Indeed, had the Torah been the work of man, it would certainly have started with worthy people, who do good for others.’
Rav Yosef Salant comments:’When we delve into these ordinances, we are struck by they being called משפטים: ‘ordinances’, which - by definition - are to give each what is rightfully his, by law - the ordinances determining what rightfully belongs to each person.
‘Thus, for instance, logically, in regard to the Jewish slave, the law should have permitted the master to treat the slave as ‘his property’, unlimited by time, for whatever purpose he requires; yet our Holy Torah adjures us not to enslave the slave we have acquired for more than six years, and to treat him in all respects as you treat yourself - and sometimes to even give him priority over yourself, so much so, that our Sages say:(Kid’ 20.): 'One who acquires a slave, is as if he acquires a master for himself.’
‘Indeed, when the nations hear these ordinances, they will wonder, saying: they are not משפטים: ordinances, but צדקה: benevolence.
‘However, Bnei Israel, to whom these ordinances were given at Har Sinai - together with the Ten Commandments - had so elevated and purified themselves, that they unquestioningly accepted them as binding ordinances.’
Before savoring the beautiful answer that Rav Simcha Zissel offers, let us consider the answers proffered by several of our learned commentators, over the years.
The Abarbanel first notes, that ‘the choice of the Jewish slave as the first ordinance, is clearly by design, and not coincidental. Therefore, we have to expound the reason.’
He then expounds:’The ‘Jewish slave’, is brought first in the Parasha of ordinances, for two reasons: First, because it is an outcome of the first of the Ten Commandments: ‘I am Hashem your G-d who took you out of Egypt from the house of slavery’ - which is the foundation of all the Commandments - and therefore acquired them to be His slaves.
‘It is therefore not proper that they should enslave one another; for this reason, the subject of the Jewish slave is mentioned first, that they are not enslaved to their human master forever, only for six years, and then they return to their families and to their lives.
‘The second reason: just as Hashem’s Torah commenced with the story of Creation, so too, our first ordinance ‘mimics’ the seven days of Creation - the seventh, after the six days of ‘work’, being the day of rest.
‘Another reason for this being the first ordinance, is to dispel the thought, that since these ordinances are rational, they are akin to those of other nations, as this is not so. In our ordinance are included many divine teachings, which - as the Parasha states, Moshe is (21:1)’To place before them’, and ‘not before other nations’.
‘Hashem therefore began from the second half of the Ten Commandments, they being brief, and against ‘Thou shalt not kill’, He brought several kinds of ‘killing’ that a man can inflict on his fellow man.
‘The first of these is, that when he acquires a slave, he enslaves him for his whole life, as this is truly a form of killing;’instead, he is commanded (Behar 25:36)’You shall..let your brother live with you.’ - the opposite of killing him.’
The Kli Yakar adds a new ‘face’, to our query:’The reason that the first matter the Torah in our Parasha is concerned with, is the mitzvah of releasing the slave you have bought, after six years, for no charge, is that, just as when you were a slave, I, Hashem gave you freedom from the house of slavery. So too: you shall proclaim freedom to your slave who was sold to you because of his theft, because you too were sold into slavery, because you stole Yosef - whom you then sold - which resulted in Bnei Israel descending into slavery in Egypt.
‘Despite this, you were redeemed and freed - so too, send your slaves free.’
Let us now savor Rav Simcha Zissel’s answer:’We are sons to Hashem, who gave us the Torah. If a father has, amongst his sons, one who is a thief, all his thoughts are about that son, and he is constantly thinking how he can bring him back from his wayward ways.
‘This is why, at the very outset of the parasha of ordinances, Hashem seeks ways to bring back the son who has strayed.
‘The answer the Torah finds, is his sale; if he was to be sent to jail for a period, he would only learn to ‘improve’ on his dishonest endeavors, as when he is released, he has no way of supporting himself, except by returning to his ‘profession’.
‘When the court sells him to a righteous master, he can but learn from his good ways. In addition, the respectful way in which he is treated - as we have noted - is the best pathway to his mending his ways.’
Whilst Rav Simcha Zissel sees the purpose of this ordinance to be for the benefit of the thief, the Chinuch (Mitzvah 42), sees as its purpose to inculcate in the master the attributes of chessed and compassion, stating:’Amongst the roots of the Mitzvah, is that Hashem wanted that his people should be crowned with all the good attributes, so that they should merit that He shower them with blessing, and chessed and compassion being amongst the choicest attributes, He therefore adjured us to be merciful to those under our hands, and to do chessed to then, as the Parasha teaches.’
Rav Matityahu Solomon draws from the teachings of our Sages, the extent of the chessed the master is to extend to the slave he has acquired, bringing the Gemara(Kid’ 22.):’Because it is good for him with you’: with you, in food and in drink - not that you should be eating clean bread, and he coarse bread, you drinking aged wine and he drinking new wine, you sleeping on a comfortable mattress, and he on straw.
‘From here, they say that one who acquires a slave, acquires a master.
Adds the Rav: ’The Tosafot there expound, that, from this, should there be only one cushion, if the master takes it for himself, he transgresses ‘Because it is good for him with you’, and therefore it should be given to the slave.’
Rav Aryeh Leib Lopian - the son of the musar master, Rav Elya Lopian - expands on the wondrous concern of the Torah for the feelings of the Jewish slave, gleaned from the master being required, when there is only one cushion, to give it to the slave, and he, the ‘master’, to go without.
Expounds the Rav:’’The reason for this is that the master is required to be sensitive to the feelings of his slave, so as not to accentuate the degradation that he feels.
‘If, where there is only one cushion, the slave is compelled to do without, his already low feelings will certainly be exacerbated, on seeing his master sleeping on the one cushion.
‘On the other hand, should the master give the cushion to the slave, true, he, the master, will be discomfitted, but this is only a physical, temporary discomfort, which is far outweighed by the ‘spiritual’ pain the slave would feel.
‘Therefore, the Torah obliges the master to give the single cushion to his slave.’
A parting gem from Rav Avigdor Miller: ‘Having learned of the Torah’s concern for the feelings of the slave, how are we to reconcile that with the seemingly cruel requirement imposed by our psukim on the slave.
‘The Parasha states:(21:3)’If his master will give him a woman and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children belong to the master, and he’, the slave ‘shall go out by himself.’
‘To understand this, we start with the assumption that the purpose is to distance the slave, who is about to be released, from again stealing.
‘In every theft there are two elements: One, the thief has taken something that does not belong to him, and has caused a loss to the owner; AND, second, since we are all naturally attached and fond of our possessions, the separation resulting from the theft, is painful to the owner.
‘The thief acts without concern for this ‘pain of separation’ of the owner, when he steals his possession, as, had he taken it into account, he would not have stolen.
‘The Torah, by this requirement, comes to repair this defect in the soul of the thief, by giving the master permission to give him a woman to bear children, and then separating him from them, when he is about to be freed, so that he, too, will suffer a ‘pain of separation’, and, as a result of his pain, he will reflect, and refrain from stealing in the future.’
לרפואת כל חיילי צהל וכן נועם עליזה בת זהבה רבקה ונחום אלימלך רפאל בן זהבה רבקה, בתוך שאר חולי עמנו.