The Obligation to Learn the Reasons for Each of the Mitzvot
Commenting on the verse that states, “And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them” (Ex 21:1), Rashi sites the Talmud as follows: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, ‘Don’t think for a moment that you’ll teach them a chapter or a Halachah just once or twice. Don’t withhold yourself from explaining the reasons for the mitzvot. You will clearly present the laws to them, as one sets a table’” (Eruvin 54b; Mechilta 54b).
Rabbi Yosef Haim, the famous author of Ben Ish Hai, explains the verse as follows: “You will therefore observe the law, the statutes, and the ordinances that I command you today” (Deut 7:11). The 613 commandments are divided into three categories: The chukim (statues) are those that we don’t understand the reasoning for and that the mind can’t comprehend; the mitzvot (laws) are those that are understandable but which we perform only because G-d told us to; and the mishpatim (ordinances) are those that are understandable and justifiable and which we would perform even if G-d hadn’t told us to.
Now this Parsha begins by this last category of commandments, and this raises a certain number of problems.
1. If the mishpatim are justifiable, why did G-d order Moses to present them to the Children of Israel as one sets a table? Since they could understand them through reasoning, they would perform them without being ordered to do so.
2. Why does this section of the Torah begin precisely with the laws concerning the Hebrew slave?
3. As we have explained on many occasions, the word .*:; (“place”, mentioned at the beginning of the Parsha) is formed from the first letters of the Hebrew words Tefillin, Shabbat, and Milah (circumcision). Yet we don’t see here what the connection is between these three precepts (included in the word .*:;) and the laws concerning the purchase of a Hebrew slave.
Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra explains that Moses wanted to emphasize the difficulty of enslaving someone. For all men are free, and the Children of Israel are the sons of the King (Shabbat 67a). Who likes being enslaved and made to suffer?
G-d therefore ordered Moses to encourage the Children of Israel to behave with gentleness in regards to their slaves, not to consider them as personal possessions.
As for the Ramban, he explains that the Parsha begins with the laws concerning the Hebrew slave because it mentions the seventh year when they are to be liberated, which alludes to the departure from Egypt. As it is written, “And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the L-RD your G-d redeemed you. Therefore I command you regarding this matter today.” (Deut 15:15). In other words, when you will have acquired a slave, behave properly with him.
Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra and the Ramban explain that a slave does indeed constitute a possession for his master, but it is proper to treat a slave with a maximum of tact. The Children of Israel – who had been deprived of their liberty in Egypt, where they had been subjected to the most terrible atrocities of slavery – should not treat their slaves as they themselves had been treated in Pharaoh’s country.
Even though all these ideas seem very clear, Moses had to present them “as one sets a table.” And if he hadn’t presented them to the Children of Israel, they would have definitely sinned. They perhaps didn’t understand the essence of their servitude in, and their liberation from, Egypt. The evil inclination tries to make men fail precisely in those areas that they think they’ve mastered.
The Parsha therefore starts with the laws concerning the Hebrew slave in order to show that “the Children of Israel are servants to Me” (Lev 25:55). It is to show that they are not the slaves of slaves (Kiddushin 22b; Bava Metzia 10a). These are certainly minor details, but it is proper that they should be explained to the Children of Israel so that they don’t weaken spiritually.
As we have seen, the Children of Israel were liberated from slavery because of the observance of Shabbat (Yerushalmi Taanith 1:1), their circumcision before leaving Egypt (Tanhuma Beshalach 7), and the mitzvah of Tefillin (Ex 13:16).
G-d thus recalls these three mitzvot. He presents (and asks them to place, .*:;) before them these signs in order to reconnect them to G-d and have them serve Him. For, as we know (Menachot 36b), the successive laws of Shabbat, circumcision, and Tefillin all carry the moniker Oht (a sign). The Torah only mentions the Parsha of the Hebrew slave afterwards so as to make the Israelites understand that it’s only through the observance of these three mitzvot that they went from slavery to freedom. The Hebrew who was sold as a slave must have defiled these three mitzvot.
Moses therefore explained to the Children of Israel that if they observed these three mitzvot, they wouldn’t become slaves nor enslaved to the evil inclination. Otherwise, they become defiled and defile the entire universe that was created in six days (“he shall work for six years” [Ex 21:2]). However, by the strict observance of Shabbat (which, as we saw above, alludes to the seventh year), they would be restored to freedom. This means that they would no longer be under the tutelage of the evil inclination, but rather under that of the Holy One, blessed be He.