The Talmud discusses this week’s Torah portion more than any other—by a wide margin. Many of the largest tractates are based on it.

Mishpatim is filled with laws—civil, tort, damage, and business laws, among others—and contains 53 of the 613 commandments, nearly 10% percent of all the mitzvot in Torah.1

The second verse instructs, “Should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work [for] six years, and in the seventh [year], he shall go out to freedom without charge.”2 This is the first of the 53 laws in this parshah

A Jewish man can become a slave in one of two ways. The first is if he sells himself into slavery. Why would a person do that? For financial freedom. He’s economically overwhelmed; he can’t handle the credit card debt or the toxic mortgage anymore. He can’t handle the pressure and the stress, so he decides to sell himself as a slave. What does he get in return? He gets a lump sum of money and the commitment of his new master to support his wife and children; no more stress and no more pressure.

The second scenario in which a Jewish man can become a slave is if he is caught stealing and cannot afford to repay what he stole.

In Torah law, there is no imprisonment for theft. By contrast, in most contemporary legal systems, those caught stealing are sent to prison. But what do they gain from their prison stay? Often, they are housed and fed on the taxpayers’ dime, and during their stay, they hang out with other thieves and learn how to become better thieves. What was gained? Absolutely nothing.

According to Torah law, the first thing a person must do when caught stealing is make restitution. He must repay what he stole; often he is ordered to pay double. If he stole $1,000, he must pay back $2,000. What happens if he doesn’t have that money? What happens if he says, “Two thousand dollars?! I have eleven cents! If I had $2,000, I wouldn’t steal in the first place!” In that case, the court can sell him into slavery for a maximum of six years.3

Now, here is a fascinating detail of this law: If, at the end of the six-year term, the man says, “I like it here! I know my six years are up, but I don’t want to go home. All my needs are met, I don’t have any pressure, and I don’t have any stress. I want to remain here,” his master must take him to the Beit Din – the Jewish court, where they pierce his ear with an awl, and with that, he remains a slave. That’s the halacha, the law.

“Why was the ear chosen for piercing rather than another organ?” ask the Sages. “Since it was the ear that heard on Mount Sinai, ‘You shall not steal,’ yet it went ahead and stole, let it be pierced; since it was the ear that heard on Mount Sinai, ‘For unto Me are the Children of Israel servants, they are My servants,’ yet it threw off the heavenly yoke and replaced it with the yoke of man, let it be pierced.”

When we consider how this person is treated it becomes clear that “slave” is not really an accurate way to describe his arrangement, and he’d be better described as a “servant” or “bondsman.”

But the fact is that he is serving a human master. And G‑d wants a Jew to be a servant only to Him. Serve G‑d and don’t serve anyone else. We’re not made to serve other people. Since the Exodus from Egypt, we are free people. The only one we should serve is G‑d.

Genuine Liberty

Looking at this through the lens of Kabbalah and Chassidism, we can understand why this particular commandment was chosen to be the first mitzvah in Mishpatim. The Jewish slave and its laws represent the commitment of the Jew to G‑d. When we properly study and internalize these laws, we will recognize that the reason we are free people is because we serve G‑d. And if we serve G‑d, we must serve Him exclusively, because true freedom exists only when you serve G‑d.

The great sage Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi taught in the Mishnah: Every day a booming voice resounds from Mount Sinai proclaiming, “Woe is to the creatures who insult the Torah.” For one who does not occupy himself in Torah is considered to have insulted the Torah.4

The Torah was given by G‑d on Mount Sinai, and a Jew is too busy for it? He has no time for it? We find ourselves running here, there, and everywhere. We’ve got things to do, places to go, people to see. Says the voice booming forth every day from Mount Sinai: It’s insulting!

The Baal Shem Tov asks: if there's a voice booming forth from Mount Sinai every day, who hears it? Do we hear it? Our neshamah hears it, the Baal Shem Tov explains. It’s a voice that our subconscious soul hears.

Rabbi Joshua continued:

The verse says, “Now the tablets were G‑d's work, and the inscription was G‑d's inscription, engraved on the tablets.”5 Don’t read “engraved” (charut) but “liberty” (cheirut), for there is no free individual, except he who occupies himself with the study of Torah.

The Ten Commandments liberate us. Torah liberates us. It frees us. Although many people think that studying Torah and observing commandments confines and restricts them, the truth of the matter is that it is the human condition that we all serve somebody. Some people serve the boss at work, some people serve their spouse, some people serve the government. Many people serve their own addictions and become slaves to themselves, slaves to their passions.

If you want to be truly free, connect yourself to Torah, the Mishnah advises. If you serve G‑d, you are free. When you serve G‑d, you serve no one else, and that gives you the strength and the ability to be free.

“Humankind was born to toil.”6 Those who think that they were born to be on vacation are making a mistake.

Yet there are various kinds of toil. A person can toil in Torah, investing effort, studying, researching, and being occupied with Torah.

A person can toil in prayer, with prayer being his primary function in life. He prays in the morning, he prays in the afternoon, he prays at night. He meditates, he contemplates. He is always praying in one form or another.

People can toil in their occupation—they can be workaholics—working from morning until evening, slaves to their work.

If we toil in Torah, we don’t have to toil in our occupation. Yes, we have to make a living, but it does not have to enslave us.

And so, rule number one of all of the rules of Mishpatim: be a Jewish servant—a servant of G‑d. We have to rise above everything else. G‑d says to go to work, so we have to go to work. G‑d says to get married, so we have to get married. G‑d says to have children, we have to have children. Whatever G‑d says, we do. Why do we do it? Because we’re liberated. Because we’re connected to G‑d. Because we know that G‑d is watching over us. And that is the truest liberation that a Jew can attain.

Redemption Millennium

“Should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work [for] six years, and in the seventh [year], he shall go out to freedom without charge.”

According to our sages, these six years symbolize the six millennia. Kabbalah describes the entirety of human history as a seven-millennium “week,” comprising six 1,000-year “days” of human labor in developing G‑d’s world, and a seventh millennium that is “wholly Shabbat and rest, for life everlasting”—the era of Moshiach.

When we properly invest our efforts and energy in the service of G‑d throughout these six millennia, then when the millennium of Moshiach arrives, we can truly enjoy it—celebrating our era of “Shabbat.”

May we merit to enter the seventh millennium – the Moshiach millennium. As the Rebbe said on many occasions, we can already hear the footsteps of Moshiach. The world has come full circle, and we are ready for his arrival. May we merit to greet him speedily in our days! Amen.