Free translation from a talk of the Rebbe, Shabbos Parshas Mishpatim, 29th Day of Shvat, 5746 (1986), (excerpt)

This week we are hosting a Pegishah (Encounter With Chabad) weekend for Jewish women and daughters. The Pegishah began on Friday and will continue into Sunday. It is therefore appropriate that we find some teaching from the portion of the Torah which was read last week, and this week’s portion, as well as the portion which will be read next week.

In the portion of Yisro, which we read last week, the Torah relates the story of Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah at Sinai). Several incidents of that narrative are also related in this week’s portion, Mishpatim.

We know that in the process of receiving the Torah the women were given precedence over the men. We derive this from the verse:

This is what you must say to the house of Yaakov and tell the Israelites. (Shmos 19:3)

Rashi immediately indicates:

The house of Yaakov — this describes the women. (loc. cit.)

Clearly, the women were approached first. In the upcoming portion of Terumah the Torah speaks of the donations made for the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert. It is known that the women played an important role in the donations made for the Mishkan, as well as in the unique craftwork involved in preparing the woven curtains and animal skin coverings for the Tabernacle.

Every skilled woman put her hand to spinning...highly skilled women volunteers also spun the goats’ wool. (Shmos 35:25-26)

In the narrative about bringing the donations for the Tabernacle Scripture tells us: “The men accompanied the women” (Ibid:22). And Rashi explains: (They came) “With the women, and closely following them” (loc. cit.).

In fact, the Ramban explains:

Ornaments were more common among the women,... therefore they immediately pulled off their earrings and signet rings and were the first to come to Moshe...and afterwards they brought with them the men.... (loc. cit.)

Thus, the women actually led the men in contributing for the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and donated their time and expertise as well.

In the portion of Mishpatim we find reference to the laws of a Jewish male-servant and maid-servant. As we peruse the distinct laws we will clearly see how Torah gives greater consideration to the honor of a Jewish daughter.

Let us review some of the details:

(A) First of all there is a basic difference in how a man can enter servitude, and under what mitigating circumstances, a girl may enter servitude.

In the case of a man:

The Hebrew slave mentioned in Scripture refers to an Israelite whom the court sells into servitude against his will (e.g. if he stole money and cannot repay) or to one who sells himself voluntarily into servitude (e.g. if one becomes so poor that he remains with no possessions). (Rambam, Laws of Slaves 1:1)

This phenomenon does not apply at all in the case of a Jewish girl, as we know:

A woman is not sold into servitude because of theft. Nor may she personally sell herself. (Ibid. 1:2)

When can a Jewish girl enter into servitude? There is only one possible case. When a father “sells” his minor daughter. This servitude lasts only until the girl reaches the age category of “Na’arah” (puberty), 12 years old and a day, at which time she automatically goes free.

It must be noted that even this singular case can only be implemented under dire circumstances, i.e. when the father is so poor that he has nothing left to his name: “land or movables, or even the garment upon his body” (Ibid 4:2).

And even then, “We may compel the father to redeem his daughter after he sold her...” (Ibid).

(B) A second area of important distinction applies in the question of the purpose or intention of “selling” a girl as a maid-servant. For even in those extenuating circumstances where a father may enter such a deal:

A Hebrew female slave may be sold (by her father) only to one with whom or with whose son a valid marriage can be effected, in order that she may be eligible for espousal. (Ibid.:11)

In other words, the end purpose of maid-servitude is to lead eventually to marriage with the master or his son. This is the condition for, and purpose of, the arrangement. Thus the goal of maid-servitude is diametrically opposite to the purpose of slavery! In fact there is a mitzvah attached to the marriage of a master with his maid! As the Rambam rules:

The duty of espousing a Hebrew bondwoman takes precedence over the duty of redeeming her. (Ibid.:7)

All this indicates how seriously the Torah considers the importance of the honor of Jewish women, even as compared to the honor due a Jewish man.

Let us now view this concept from the vantage point of the inner meaning of Torah and the Chassidic interpretation.

In a Chassidic discourse on the subject of Jewish servants the Alter Rebbe explained that the first level of man’s Divine service is the state of “Canaanite slave.” He may then rise to the level of “Jewish servant,” and finally reach the state of Divine service, called “Jewish maid-servant,” the ultimate purpose of which is for the Jewish soul to be united with the Master, the Holy One, Blessed be He, just as a bride is taken by her groom.

Thus, just as the condition for, and purpose of, “maid-servitude” is essentially to marry the master, so, too, is the goal of the Divine service of the Jewish people to effect a “marriage” between the “Congregation of Israel” and the Holy One, Blessed be He.

This purpose and goal leads to the ultimate goal of redemption, which will be effected by our actions. As we find in Midrash:

This world is like the betrothal.... The actual marriage ceremony will take place in the Messianic days. (Shmos Rabbah 15:31)

This is what the prophet was referring to:

On that shall say: my husband. (Hoshea 2:18)

It should also be noted that women have a special association with redemption, for our sages tell us:

As a reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation were the Israelites delivered from Egypt. (Sotah 11b)

Similarly, in our generation the redemption will be brought about in the merit of the good deeds and actions of the righteous women of our generation, which is what the prophet meant when he said:

As in the days of your coming out of the land of Egypt I will show him marvelous things. (Michah 7:15)

There is an important practical lesson to be gleaned from this teaching.

Just as G‑d is so very careful concerning the honor due to Jewish women and girls, so too, must every Jew be extremely careful in the honor and esteem he shows his wife. As the Alter Rebbe writes in Shulchan Aruch:

A man should always take care to show his wife the proper esteem.

The Rambam similarly quotes the Gemara in teaching us:

The sages have likewise ordained that a man should honor his wife more than his own self. (Rambam, Laws of Marriage 15:19 from Yevamos 62b)

This of course follows on the strict laws of self-respect, and the recognition that one’s body is the possession of G‑d and not his own.

Now, in addition to the greater measure of respect due to his wife, one must also make every effort to assist his wife in all matters related to Torah and mitzvos as well as her efforts in spreading Yiddishkeit.

As we have seen, in the basic matters of Torah and Yiddishkeit, such as Matan Torah and the building of the Tabernacle, the women were actually first!

So, man must assist his wife in all these matters of Torah and mitzvos even to the point that he must make sacrifices in order to extend to her “greater esteem.”

In this way Torah assures us:

When husband and wife are worthy, the Shechinah abides with them.... (Sotah 17b)

Their home will become a repository for the Shechinah, which will speed the building of the Third Beis HaMikdash. May it be built speedily in our days.

May G‑d grant that through the Divine service of Jewish women and daughters we will merit, very soon, the true and complete redemption, through our righteous Mashiach.

May we go with our youth and elders, sons and daughters to Eretz Yisrael, to Yerushalayim our Holy City, and to our Third Beis HaMikdash, may it be built speedily and truly in our time.