The Continuation of Revelation
What would you expect the continuation of the Torah to be after the awesome experience, the revelation, at Har Sinai? Would you expect a series of instructions about how to maintain and possibly increase that level of spirituality? Laws about prayer, sacrifice, building a temple? Surprisingly, we find a series of civil and criminal laws, the first of which concerns the care of the lowest class of our society, the ebed ibri, the Jewish bondsman.
The ebed ibri is someone who stole, possibly to feed his family, and now must work in servitude to repay his debt. You might imagine that this ebed ibri would not be given special rights and privileges. Yet, one of the first terms of our berit is that even if the ebed ibri is ill for a large portion of his contract, you are responsible for his bills, and cannot dock his pay for the time he was ill. In the seventh year he goes “free,” free as in hinam; he does not owe you anything and his debts are cleared from his contract .
There is one more situation of an ebed ibri. This is when one sells himself into servitude, which is only permissible under very specific circumstances. An individual can only become an ebed ibri if he has absolutely nothing, no food, or even a change of clothing. In such a situation, the Torah allows him to enter into an ebed ibri agreement . This is an avenue of rehabilitation. This individual is given a home, food, and shelter among a well-established family who can act as a role model.
We must treat our servants like brothers, with dignity and respect, as stated in Debarim: "When your Jewish brother will be sold to you ." One cannot ask this servant to do meaningless or demoralizing labor; he must be treated as one with rights, as it says: "Do not have him perform servile tasks ." We are concerned about this man's self-image and dignity.
Furthermore, you are obligated to care for the servant similar to the way you provide for yourself and your own family, as Rambam states:
The master should not eat bread made from fine flour while the servant eats bread from coarse flour. The master should not drink aged wine while the servant drinks fresh wine. The master should not sleep on cushions while the servant sleeps on straw .
This point is so important and is one our Hakhamim wanted us to understand well. That is why Yirmeyahu 34:8 was chosen as the haftara for perashat Mishpatim. There, Benei Yisrael decide to do teshuba, and the one thing they choose to fix is: "That every man set free his bondsman and his bondwoman, the Jew, and the Jewess..."
In Yirmeyahu, Benei Yisrael were instructed to free their Israelite servants who had worked for them for more than seven years. They were oppressing the downtrodden and those who had difficulty in their lives. That was a breach of the berit’s first term, which clearly states that on the seventh year the ebed must be set free. The message is that our fellow man should be taken care of, not only our friends and those who share similar circles of interest, wealth, and class, but those who lack the means and ability to take care of themselves. It is our obligation to help them get back on their feet. Note that the ebed is not allowed to remain as a servant. The goal is to enable him to eventually be self-sufficient. The master must give the servant a gift when setting him free. This is a misva deoraita as it states in Debarim: "Provide him generously from your flocks, your threshing floor and your wine cellar ." This is a severance package aiming to ensure that the servant will have the means to start his own life. Not only does he leave servitude without debt, he leaves with a net gain of gifts to help him become his own man.
To be a person or a nation of God is to ensure the welfare of every member of our society. Abraham Abinu, our paradigm of a man of God, stood up in defense of people he had no connection with in order to protect them from a possible injustice. God wanted Abraham to express this trait and therefore told him about His plans so that his future nation would follow the path of God to do justice and righteousness, sedaqa umishpat . We find this message throughout the Torah, Nebiim, and Ketubim. In Hoshea, we are told: "For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings ." God does not want appeasing gifts, rather proper societal behavior incorporating His traits of compassion and mercy.
Our Har Sinai experience can be likened to a climb up the ladder to God, similar to the malakhim in Ya'aqob's dream who went up the ladder . These malakhim, like us, then came down the ladder to walk in God's way on earth. That is the meaning of the misva ‘vehalakhta bidrakhav,’ to walk in God's ways . The path of God is one where a person interacts with others with mercy, patience, and kindness. To know God and have a relationship with Him is to be imbued with His traits.
Knowledge of God is meant to lead to a society where there is no longer predator and prey, where the unprotected live comfortably without fear of oppression, and the unfortunate are lifted up. Imagine a world filled with this kind of knowledge of God. This is the world that we envision. This is what nebiim like Yeshayahu prophesied about.
"And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them...They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea ."
The revelation at Har Sinai, the pinnacle of our spiritual experience, is meant to help us create a better society, to ensure that the oppressed and downtrodden are protected and taken care of. Our spiritual experience of God is for us to learn His ways, live by them, become a model nation, and have the rest of the world follow suit.
Rabbi Meyer Laniado
 Mishne Torah Hilkhot Abadim 2:12
 Mishne Torah Hilkhot Abadim 1:1
 Debarim 15:12
 Vayiqra 25:39
 Mishne Torah Hilkhot Abadim 1:9
 Debarim 15:13-14 and Mishne Torah Hilkhot Abadim 3:13-14
 Beresheit 18:19
 Hoshea 6:6
 Beresheit 28:12
 Debarim 28:9 and Mishne Torah Hilkhot Deot 1:5
 Yeshayahu 11:6-9
Rabbi Meyer Laniado is a Rabbi at Congregation Magen David of West Deal and Hillel Yeshiva High School.