Parshat Mishpatim introduces us to a new category of mitzvoth. Ordinarily we think of mitzvoth as proscribed rituals externally imposed upon our reality. For example, while the default assumption for most moderns is not necessarily to pray daily, the Torah demands that a person go out of his way to take time and daven regularly. Moreover, the daily experiences of most mitzvoth are consistent, leaving ample opportunity for an individual to prepare accordingly. A Jew is certainly not surprised for example, to learn that every year he must sit in a Sukkah for seven days. Classical mitzvoth are fixed in our calendar cycle and leave little room for being caught off guard.
Parshat Mishpatim, by contrast, speaks of a much more spontaneous type of religious experience. Moreover, the mitzvoth defined in our sidra describe institutions that are not religious by nature. In its attempt to provide a theological foundation for the ordinary, the Torah delineates rules of conduct that are designed to take normal activities and transform them into “Jewish normal activities.” For example, while there is no formal mitzvah to own a slave, if a person opts to own a Jewish slave, the Torah provides specific rules that are intended to govern the slave-master relationship. The Seforno (21:1) highlights the spontaneity of the Mishpatim by noting that these are a category of mitzvoth which only need to be performed “when the need arises.”
Interestingly enough, the Torah begins its discussion of this new type of mitzvah by discussing the laws of the Jewish slave. Placing rules of slavery at the beginning of a law code is one of the unique features of the biblical narrative. In fact, Dr. Nachum Sarna writes that “none of the other law collections from the ancient Near East open with this topic. Hammurabi’s, for example, deals with slavery last.”
This unique aspect of the bible’s legal code raises the question of why the Torah chose specifically to begin with the halachot of the Jewish slave? Dr. Sarna provides his own theory noting that the “priority given to this subject by the Torah doubtless has a historical explanation: Having recently experienced liberation from bondage, the Israelite is enjoined to be especially sensitive to the condition of the slave.” The Ibn Ezra tries to explain this phenomenon by appealing to the psychological difficulties associated with the experience of slavery. By beginning with this subject, the Torah wanted to stress that there is “nothing in the world more challenging than being owned by another.”
Whichever position you accept, it is clear the rules of the Jewish slave represent a larger narrative either describing the psychological challenges of servitude or reminding the Israelites to remember their own slavery when dealing with others. Moreover, the Eved Ivri also serves as a case study in the Torah’s approach to the ordinary. By insisting that normal daily activities should be placed in a larger theological context, the Torah concertizes the Jewish notion that holiness can be found in the everyday.