Monday, January 20, 2014

These are the ordinances

Parshat Mishpatim begins:

א  וְאֵלֶּה, הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים, לִפְנֵיהֶם.1 Now these are the ordinances which thou shalt set before them.
ב  כִּי תִקְנֶה עֶבֶד עִבְרִי, שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים יַעֲבֹד; וּבַשְּׁבִעִת--יֵצֵא לַחָפְשִׁי, חִנָּם.2 If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.

הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, ordinances, is not the same as "good deeds", or even "optimal conduct". By this I mean that כִּי תִקְנֶה does not mean that one should go out of his way to acquire a Hebrew servant. The word כי means "if", or "when". Given that society has this concept of slavery, and there are people who are so poor that they will need to sell themselves into slavery, here is how to go about it: indentured servitude for only a limited timespan, with support for the indentured servant's family, protections in place to prevent abuse, gifts after the servitude to establish the servant as a self-sufficient member of a free society; and only at the servant's discretion, the ability to opt in to a longer period of servitude.

Elements within the Biblical description itself indicate that this is not the optimal. And certainly within Rabbinic literature this is understood to be the case.

One doesn't divorce one's wife every year before Rosh HaShanah in order to get another mitzvah. It is a regulation about how to go about divorce, if divorce is necessary. And it is understood, within the Chumra Song, that this is a joke:
I stole a diamond ring from my Tante Bailah, 
Just to be mekayem “Vehaishiv es hag’zailah”,

Of course, some would say that Biblical Commandment A is a "Mitzvah" that one should go out of his way to fulfill, while others would say that Biblical Commandment A is a statute or regulation. And Kabbalistic ideas that these commanded acts have some hidden positive spiritual effect would often weigh in, making some regard it as a mitzvah to go out of your way to fulfill.

For example, Shiluach HaKen, and whether one should disturb a nest and take the eggs if he has absolutely no need for the eggs. There are rabbinic voices, rationalists, who would regard this as an act of great cruelty such that obviously one should not do it. And there are rabbinic voices, non-rationalists, who would regard it as an important and positive act to do, with the cruelty of the act as part of its intent.

Or consider this "Geulah Update" from Rabbi Yekusiel Fish, on Yeranen Yaakov, with this surprising tale:
Also, during that period, Rav Kaduri's Havruta, the Gaon Mekubal Rav Shemuel Darzi ZT"L tried to perform the breaking of the neck of a Petter Hamor in order to cause the downfall of the Sharon government.  However, when people came to take pictures, he cried out to the donkey, "Rasha, they don't let me break your neck!"  And immediately after this incident, Rav Darzi ZT"L passed away.  And a few days after Rav Darzi ZT"L passed away, Sharon suffered a stroke, from which he had not recovered until he passed away.
He wanted to perform the act described in the second clause of this pasuk:

יג  וְכָל-פֶּטֶר חֲמֹר תִּפְדֶּה בְשֶׂה, וְאִם-לֹא תִפְדֶּה וַעֲרַפְתּוֹ; וְכֹל בְּכוֹר אָדָם בְּבָנֶיךָ, תִּפְדֶּה.13 And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break its neck; and all the first-born of man among thy sons shalt thou redeem.

I don't know if anyone would regard it as a mitzvah such that just as people gather en mass to carry out the rare ceremony of pidyon peter chamor, they would gather en mass to carry out ve'im lo sifdeh vaArafto. This should be regarded as a regulation of one does not do the act of redemption.

In the case above, it seems that the kabbalist was trying to perform the ceremony as a means of accomplishing something on the spiritual plane, "to cause the downfall of the Sharon government". Which isn't precisely the same thing.

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