The haftarah1 for parshat Mishpatim is from the book of Jeremiah. Tzidkiyahu, king of Judah, made a proclamation to free all Jewish slaves, because, by Torah law, a Jewish slave must be freed after six years. This was necessary because the rich and powerful made it their custom to keep Jewish slaves perpetually. After freeing them, these slave owners had a change of heart and recaptured their Jewish slaves and placed them back into servitude.

G‑d then gave Jeremiah a prophecy that because they are enslaving their brothers and sisters against G‑d's will, they will suffer horrible consequences, including the sword, pestilence and famine. Tzidkiyahu and his nobles would be placed in the hands of their enemies, namely the king of Babylonia, who would also capture Jerusalem and burn it.

The connection to our parshah is that parshat Mishpatim opens with the laws of Jewish slaves, that they go free after six years. Because the haftarah focuses on this specific point, that means that it is a central theme of our parshah.

How is the law of Jewish slaves central to the entire parshah, which discusses so many more laws? And what lessons are here for us, in a time when there is no more slavery?

After parshat Yitro and the giving of the Ten Commandments, parshat Mishpatim is the start of the general laws between people. Most of these laws are understandable, as common sense dictates them, as well. It begs the question, why did G‑d choose to begin these laws with the laws of Jewish slaves?

The question becomes stronger when we consider that at the time that they were given this law, there was no possibility of owning a Jewish slave.

There are two ways that a Jew can become a slave. Either he is so destitute that he sees no way to survive other than selling himself as a slave. Or, if he steals, and does not have the money to pay back what he stole, the court would sell him as a slave for the amount he owed.

When the Jewish people left Egypt, they left with tremendous wealth. Seven days later, after the Splitting of the Sea, they became even richer, because the Egyptians had adorned their war horses with gold, silver and jems. After they drowned in the sea, G‑d made all the valuables wash up on the shore. There was so much that even when it was time to continue on to Sinai, the Jews didn't want to leave.

Just 43 days later, the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Right after that, they were given these laws of slave ownership. No one was destitute, and if someone stole, he would surely have been able to pay back. So whence the slaves?

On top of that, during the 40 years in the desert, G‑d took care of their basic needs. There was the manna from heaven, water from the Well of Miriam, and the clouds that surrounded them took care of their clothes.

So why did G‑d choose to begin these laws with the laws of Jewish slaves, which was totally irrelevant at that time?

We must conclude that there is something so basic found in these laws, that it serves as the foundation of all the laws that follow. What is this basic idea?

We know that our forefathers learned and kept the Torah and mitzvot even before the Torah was given at Sinai. So what was unique about the Sinai event?

The Midrash2 tells us that the main thing that happened was that the decree, that what is above can't go below and what is below can't go above, was abolished. In other words: Before the giving of the Torah, although they did mitzvot, they didn't affect the physical world. Now, however, when we do mitzvot, our actions affect the physical world, infusing it with G‑dliness. That was what happened in last week's parshah, Yitro.

In this week's parshah, the actual work of refining the world and making it into a dwelling place for G‑d by infusing it with G‑dliness, begins. It has the most mundane laws, because G‑d wants to dwell in the most mundane. Not to change it into something else, but to bring out its true potential. This is our main service to G‑d, to bring Him into every part of our lives.

When a Jew becomes a slave, or when a Jew forces another Jew to be a slave, he is undermining the fundamental purpose of a Jew, namely to serve G‑d in every aspect of his life.

It may happen that a person is destitute, or when he finds himself in a position that he feels forces him to steal. G‑d made a provision for that: He could become a slave for no more than six years. After that, if he wants to stay longer, the owner is to pierce his right ear, because, as Rashi3 explains in the name of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, "...This ear that heard on Mount Sinai, 'the children of Israel are Mine, they are My servants,'4 and yet he went and acquired for himself [another] master, should be pierced,"

The notion that we are servants of G‑d, here to transform and uplift the universe is the foundation of all the rest of the mitzvot in the parshah, and for that matter, the whole Torah.

In the Haftarah, when the powerful were enslaving their Jewish brethren, keeping them for more than six years, G‑d says that they will be given into the hands of their enemies and the city would be captured. In other words, they will be in exile. This is not a punishment. It is the consequence of their actions. Since the Jewish people were enslaved, they couldn't serve G‑d by making a dwelling for G‑d, which brings them to a state of redemption. Therefore, the opposite would happen, they would go into exile.

Although there is no slavery today, there are those who enslave themselves to their business affairs. They forget that it is only a means to a greater end, namely, serving G‑d. They are so indentured to their business, that even during times of prayer, Torah study and on Shabbat, when one is free to serve G‑d, they are thinking of how to get ahead in the rat race. They have chosen to remain slaves, even after the time of business is up.

G‑d wants us to be free to serve Him, and not to any other, not even to our desires or false notions.5

The haftarah ends on a positive note. Even though they will go into exile, G‑d will never forget the covenant He made with the Jewish people. He will return them to their land, and have mercy on them.

May we soon see the completion of our service to G‑d, when He will dwell openly in the home we created for Him—through our Torah and mitzvot, and bringing Him into every aspect of our lives—with the coming of Moshiach. May he come soon.