Mishpatim – People, People, People
Walk into any ward in the Wellington regional hospital, or any medical center for that matter, and you will see posters listing the rights of every patient. It informs people of their entitlement to dignified care and to be notified in detail of of their prognosis and treatment plans among other things.
The Parsha this week opens – “These are the laws that you [Moses] shall place before them [Israel]. When you purchase an indentured servant he will shall work for six years, and in the seventh he will go out free…”
There is a striking contrast between the poster on the hospital walls and the Mitzvah expressed here in the Torah. In the former the rights of the patient are delineated while the latter focuses instead on the obligations of the master of an indentured slave, what his requirements toward his worker is. If the Torah would include specifications of hospital etiquette it would have written a set of rules expressing the obligations of the doctor rather than the entitlements of the patient.
The result will be the same, whether or not the doctor fulfills his duties because it is his obligation or he does it because those are the entitlements of the patient. However, the attitude is entirely different. The patient similarly will have a different attitude if it isn’t merely an entitlement.
We have grown accustomed to a world which is all about rights. Everyone is entitled to certain basic rights. We have rights of various freedoms, rights of privacy, rights as employees and rights as citizens. When those rights are denied us there is a violation of human rights. Various governments are held to be in violation of their citizens’ rights in some form or another. We become upset when we are not treated well because our rights have been trampled upon.
This discrepancy between modern human perception and the obligations framed in the Torah has been pointed out by numerous commentators of recent times. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the opening of this week’s Torah reading. Mishpatim is the name of the reading. Laws. After the revelation at Mt. Sinai the Torah now turns its focus to the laws which will ensure the peaceful civilization of a nation. What does it start with? The laws of an employer of an indentured servant. Not the rights of the servant, not his entitlements, but the obligations of the master toward him. It is not about rights.
We live in a generation where everything is about rights. No one has any obligations. We live in an age with a divorce rate that is higher than 50%. People choose spouses with an expectation that if things don’t work out they will get a divorce. A young woman once commented, only half in jest, that she will marry someone whom she won’t mind her kids spending every other weekend with.
The point is, marriages fall apart because people don’t feel an obligation toward the other. In a marriage, as in any other partnership, we look at what we can get from it. We don’t come in with a sense of obligation toward the spouse and toward the marriage and therefore when the pressure mounts there is nothing left to hold the relationship together. We become disillusioned with relationships which don’t go our way, which don’t serve our needs, don’t meet with our ‘rights.’ This attitude of ‘rights’ has struck down the culture of being obligated to do anything without the other having a right.
The Torah’s message here is clear. When you enter a relationship you incur obligations. The relationship the Torah begins with is that of employer/employee. Of course the employee has obligations to the employer. After all he is being paid to work and is therefore morally, financially and contractually obligated. But the employer is equally obligated toward his worker. He must ensure the employee is not being overworked. A plan is in place from the start, with an end of service date so that the employee has not sold his life away. The family of the worker, if he has one, is to be provided for by the employer for as long as he works. There is a host of other obligations upon the employer incurred by the purchase of the indentured servant.
The first of the laws listed here, this defines the purpose of a law in the Torah.
Furthermore, the Torah focuses here not on entities or contracts but on people. Rashi notes that this indentured servant has been sold by the court to pay for goods he has stolen and has no means to repay. Despite being a criminal the Torah requires of his master to preserve his dignity. Ultimately the laws are about people. What matters in the end is people.