The first mitzvah in the portion of Mishpatim is that of freeing slaves. A Jewish slave could be held for only six years, after which he was to be set free. Only if the slave himself insists on remaining with his master may his term be prolonged until the Yovel (Jubilee) year, at which time even this slave would go free.

Considering the culture and the mentality of the time, this mitzvah—among other limitations on slavery—was truly revolutionary. At that time (and long after), a slave was universally seen as the property of his or her master. Indeed, in the period in which our haftarah is set—close to nine hundred years after this mitzvah was given—the Jews still found this difficult to get used to.

These were the years before the destruction of the First Temple. Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army had already subjugated Judea and exiled many of its people. As for the remaining inhabitants, Nebuchadnezzar appointed Tzidkiyahu as their vassal king. The immediate backdrop to the story of the haftarah is the return of the Babylonian army once again, now laying siege to all the major Judean cities, culminating with Jerusalem. This was provoked by a regional rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar, a move which the prophet Jeremiah strongly opposed.

At one point it seems that Tzidkiyahu decided to enact at a national level the principle of freeing all slaves. The motive remains a little unclear, but the commentaries1 to the verse understand that this was a form of teshuvah on the part of the king and his people, who now decided that at least on this count they would return to G‑d and His statutes. In fact, according to Malbim, the enactment was not only that slaves would be freed, but that they would abolish the entire legal concept of being able to enslave a fellow Jew.

To this end the king made a covenant with all the inhabitants of Jerusalem while they were gathered in the Temple. Everyone was to free any and all slaves who had overstayed the time limited to them by the Torah. At the onset the people followed suit, but it did not last long. After some time, many slaveowners forcefully recaptured their freed slaves and maidservants, entirely revoking their initial freedom.

The fierce G‑dly response, conveyed by Jeremiah, left no room for doubt as to the gravity of this sin. For one, they had brazenly ignored their express covenant made with the king in front of G‑d. The failure of the Jews to free their slaves was an age-old problem, but the sin was now magnified by breaking a sacred covenant by which they had all bound themselves.

In addition, the prophet reminded the people that their own private covenant was on top of the great original covenant made by their forefathers with G‑d at Sinai. G‑d had taken the Jews out of slavery, immediately instructing them that they in turn should also abide to the commandment never to hold a fellow Jew indefinitely enslaved. This mitzvah, as well as many others on the limitations to slavery, came right after the giving of the Torah, when G‑d reminded the people that He had taken them “out from the land of Egypt, from the the house of slavery.”

The consequence for the denial of freedom to their brethren would be “freedom”—i.e., “openness” to and lack of protection from—the many horrors that loomed with the upcoming Babylonian destruction. The king and his ministers would be taken captive, and the entire city destroyed by fire. The number of casualties would be so extreme that they would not come to any proper burial.

Unfortunately, these terrifying prophecies were fulfilled in their entirety. The haftarah, however, finishes on a positive note. Two additional verses are added, taken from the end of the previous chapter in Jeremiah. Interestingly, they also talk about covenant—the unbreakable covenant between G‑d and His people.

A preoccupying concern of many Jews at the time was the possibility that they had been rejected as the people of G‑d. In the years just before and during the destruction, and definitely afterwards, this seemed plausible. A Jewish story of a thousand years now seemed to have arrived at a sad ending. After all, every part of the Torah is basically framed around the construction of a Jewish people in their land, and what this is supposed to look like, and now all this would be entirely lost. The people were scattered to all directions, no land, no Temple, and practically nothing left of anything that constituted a people.

This debilitating notion was actually voiced by the Jews in Babylonia in connection with the subject of this haftarah. As the people in Judea were recapturing their slaves, many miles away in Babylon a group of the elders of Judea approached the prophet Ezekiel. These men had all been part of the first wave of exiles to Babylon, when Nebuchadnezzar took away most of the Jewish leadership to his land in captivity.

They came to the prophet and posed a hypothetical halachic question. “Tell us, if a kohen has a slave, and he sells him, may the slave still eat terumah?”

Terumah is the share of the crop that may be eaten only by a kohen or his immediate family. The slave of a kohen may also eat terumah, providing he is still owned by the kohen. The question was rhetorical and used metaphorically. Ezekiel understood exactly what they were saying. If G‑d had “sold” the Jews, why was He holding them accountable for reclaiming their slaves? As in the metaphor, once a slave is sold, his master ceases to have any connection to him. Was the fact that they had been cast into exile enough of a proof that G‑d had severed His ties with them?2

The prophets at the time were charged with conveying G‑d’s emphatic and forceful denial of any such consideration. It was simply not the case. The exile was due to sin, but regardless how long and hard it would be, it was ultimately temporary. The bond and covenant with the Jewish people is eternal.

In this passage Jeremiah compares the covenant with the Jewish people to the “covenant” with the laws of nature. The existence of day and night, heaven and earth—all these items of nature are permanent and unchangeable. The same is true with the covenant with the Jewish people.

G‑d will never reject them.

Aside from the general covenant with the Jewish people, there were also covenants with two particular Jewish families: the priestly family of Aaron, and the royal family of David. They too were disheartened and despondent for what seemed the end of a glorious and holy past. G‑d reassures them that it is far from being over. The Jews will return to their land, and kings will once again come from the House of David. The Temple will be rebuilt, and the kohanim and Levites will once again serve in it.

May this be speedily in our days.