Shem miShmuel asks:

Why do we start this section of the Torah with an obscure and infrequently applied law – regarding the acquisition and treatment of Jewish servants? Is there not a better way to introduce the legal dimension of the Torah, with all of its complicated and comprehensive laws, than by talking of slaves and servants?

Are they creations in their own right, or just a result of lack of spiritual illumination?

In answer, he debates whether darkness is a creation in its own right, or whether it is simply a result of lack of light. He refers to darkness as a metaphor for "forces of darkness" – that is, evil forces which are opposed to holiness. Are they creations in their own right, or just a result of lack of spiritual illumination?

We know that G‑d is everywhere at all times. Therefore, it would seem that forces opposed to holiness are nothing more than the result of His apparent self-concealment in the world. In order to allow the limited physical universe to exist, G‑d had to remove, or at least minimize His infinite illumination, lest it overwhelm creation. As a side-effect, so to speak, the forces of darkness came to function in the world.

However, G‑d, in His infinite wisdom, also placed limits upon these forces. They could only act within the parameters defined by the Torah. Just as during the night hours, we must guard ourselves from thieves – and the guarding is done by policemen or security guards who patrol the neighborhood – so, in a spiritual sense, there are sentries from Above who check and limit the expression of the forces of darkness below.

For example, during the final plague of the killing of the Egyptian firstborn, Rashi tells us that the angel of death received permission to do his work. Once given permission, he would not have discerned between Jew and non-Jew; he passed over the houses of the Jews only because G‑d had told them to mark their door-lintels with the blood of the Pascal lamb. It was G‑d's word from Above which limited the angel's ability to do his work. Similarly, it is the laws and parameters of the Torah that limit and curb the powers of darkness. is the laws and parameters of the Torah that limit and curb the powers of darkness.

Now, we can understand why the whole section of legalities of the Torah begins with the subject of slaves and servants, in particular the Jewish servants (eved) who sold himself into servitude to pay off his debts.

We are told that the Jewish slave can serve for no more than six years, and must then be set free. Shem miShmuel says that we don't really know if any Jewish person ever sold himself into servitude. Nevertheless, the Torah considers this option because it is telling us about the limits of the powers of darkness. The six years represent the six external aspects of the soul – those which are affiliated with the body. They must be perfected and refined. Once they are perfected and refined, there's no reason for the person to remain in servitude.

If it is true that one Jew is given 'mastery" over another Jew for this period of time, it is also true that he must set the person free at the end of this period. The master is not allowed, according to Torah, to enslave his fellow Jew any longer.

By keeping this commandment, we are limiting the servitude of a human being down here in this world, and, in so doing, creating limits from Above on the expression of the spiritual forces of darkness.

That is why Parashat Mishpatim begins with the section on Jewish servants – to inform us from the very beginning that there is a limit to the expression of the forces of darkness in G‑d's universe, and that it is the laws of the Torah which provide the checks and protection.


[From "Inner Lights from Jerusalem" based on Shem miShmuel and other Chassidic and Kabalistic Sources, translated and presented by Rabbi David Sterne.]