20190202 Parsha Mishpatim – Servants of Messiah

Last week’s Torah portion (Yitro) explained that exactly seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt (i.e., 49 days after the great Passover), Moses gathered the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai to enter into covenant with the LORD. In a dramatic display of thunder, lightning, billowing smoke and fire, the LORD descended upon the mountain and recited the Ten Commandments to the people. Upon hearing the law’s categorical requirements, however, the people shrank back in fear and begged Moses to be their mediator before God. The people then stood far off, while Moses alone drew near to the thick darkness to receive the various laws and rules from the LORD.

This week’s Torah portion begins with Moses in the midst of the “thick darkness” of Sinai receiving additional instructions regarding civil law for the Israelite people. It begins with the LORD saying to Moses:

Exodus 21:1 Now these are the ordinances which you will set before them.

A well-known Jewish midrash says that the LORD initially offered the Torah to each of the 70 nations, but none accepted it without first asking what it was about. After hearing the various commandments, each nation had some excuse or another for not accepting it (for example, God offered Torah to the Ishmaelites, but they declined the offer because of its prohibition of theft, since their trading practices required it). God finally turned to the nation of Israel, who said “all that the LORD says we will do”. Note something remarkable here: Unlike the other nations, Israel chose Torah before knowing its contents (Exodus 19:8). In fact, even after Moses had explained the extent of Torah’s demands, all Israel said “all that the LORD says we will do and
obey” (Exodus 24:7).

The word mishpatim means “rules” or “ordinances” and is derived from the Hebrew word shaphat (“to judge”). Parasha Mishpatim is sometimes called Sefer HaBrit (“the Book of the Covenant”), since it contains over 11.5% of all of the mitzvot (commandments) found in the entire Torah (53 of 613). These mishpatim include a wide range of civil laws, criminal laws, ritual laws, financial laws, and family laws (these civil laws are sometimes referred to as bein Adam L’Chavero – “between man and his fellow man.”

What follows in Mishpatim is in stark contrast with last week’s Parsha Yitro. We go from the thunder, lightning and earthquakes to a bunch of rules and regulations. That would be like moving from a Tom Clancy novel to the Code of Federal Regulations governing the specifications for wheelchair ramps in the Americans With Disabilities Act. Boring!!!

It is interesting that the first ordinance that we read is

Exodus 21:2 “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve for six years, and in the seventh he is to go free, without payment.

Why would the first thing after the 10 Commandments be rules about slaves? Why not something grandiose, befitting the lightning, thunder and earthquakes?

I think these verses are brought up first because of the condition from which Israel had just been freed. Remember that less than four months earlier, Israel had been mired in the bondage of generations of slavery. Slavery was all the people knew. They didn’t know how to be free men.

All they knew about how to treat slaves was how they were treated. The Egyptians were cruel taskmasters and Hashem did not want His Chosen People to emulate their former masters. He wanted them to be better than that.

Now many of you will look at these rules and ask how could God condone slavery? Isn’t that wrong? Yes, I believe slavery is wrong. But in those days a person could become a slave in a variety of ways. He could be ordered to be slave to pay for theft or to pay off a debt that he could not repay. They didn’t have a prison system like we have today. It was all much more personal. If you stole someone’s property, then you had to pay them back.

A person could sell himself into slavery to pay debts. He could even sell his daughter up until the time she could be married. The oral Torah on this is much softer. A man would sell his daughter if she would eventually be married to her master or his son. It doesn’t really square with our own sense of what is right and wrong today, but it was a common practice throughout all the world at that time. In fact, many people who couldn’t afford passage to the Americas from Europe were indentured servants in a similar fashion, with an expectation of freedom after a number of agreed upon years of service.

Torah was given to Israel to bring order and humanity to the system. When you think about it, the reality of that day is not so different from the reality of our day. In many ways we are also slaves. Slaves to the government that robs us of our wages and calls it taxation. Slaves to financial institutions that entice us with the promise of easy monthly payments but in fact are webs that entangle us just as surely and deadly as the spider. Slaves to jobs that drain the life out of us but are vital to the wellbeing of our families. I know all this sounds a bit macabre, but we are not so different from the Hebrew slaves and masters of antiquity….or are we?

Maybe we are different. I submit to you that we are different because not only do we have the written Torah, we have the Oral Torah that explains how to live out the written word. But we also have the Living Torah.

But He emptied Himself – taking on the form of a slave, becoming the likeness of men and being found in appearance as a man. He humbled Himself— becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Phil 2:6-8

1500 years after Sinai, the Torah was made flesh. Yeshua was born to a young woman in Bethlehem. Yeshua was born at a time when once again Israel was in bondage. The Egyptian Pharaohs were replaced by Roman Emperors. The slavery looked different, but it was slavery nonetheless.

But God had a plan to redeem His people. He redeemed them from Egypt and Yeshua would also redeem them. But his redemption was not a freedom from earthly bonds. His was a redemption from the bonds of sin that are much more insidious than the prisons of government, financial institutions and our fellow man. He lived a sinless life and sacrificed that life so that we could be in right fellowship with the Father.

It is interesting that the Son of God, the living Torah, the Prince of Peace showed us a paradox. He gave us freedom that transcends any earthly entanglements but at the same time gave us an example that confounds many today.

Lets look at a few Scriptures.

Matthew 20:25-28 But Yeshua called them over and said, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones play the tyrant over them. (26) It shall not be this way among you. But whoever wants to be great among you shall be your servant, (27) and whoever wants to be first among you shall be your slave— (28) just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 23:11 But the greatest among you shall be your servant.

John 12:26 If any man serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there also will My servant be. If anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.

The story of Yeshua washing the feet of his talmudim is one of the most poignant examples of humility and servanthood to be found in the Bible. He is telling us through these scriptures that our daily reality is not where we find worth. Just because we may be wealthy enough or powerful enough to escape some of the drudgery of everyday life does not mean that we have made it.

No, Yeshua is telling us something entirely different. If you want to make a difference in the Kingdom of God, you don’t have to be wealthy. You don’t have to have many employees working for you or drive that BMW 750. No, He says if we want to be great in the Kingdom we have to be willing to be a servant.

Yeshua is calling us back into slavery. Paul called it being a bondservant to the Messiah. The big difference is that Yeshua said that his bondage was easy and his burden was light. He is calling us into a slavery of love, caring for each other, and selflessness.

Just as Torah prescribed the boundaries of slavery for ancient Israel, Yeshua is telling us to reach out.

In Luke 10:27 Yeshua tells us, “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Are you willing to be a servant this morning? Can you set pride aside and recognize that you cannot pay the debt of sin in your life? There is only one way for that debt to be paid and that is to ask God to forgive you of your sins and believe in His Son who died for our sins.

Is being a servant of the Messiah always easy? Not on your life. But it is worth it!!!