When I was in high school, our principal would start everyday by reading from “Project Wisdom,” a series of quotations about specific values. You might remember these from Levine and Friday morning Shabbat celebrations. Each one ends with the line: “With something to think about, this is Rabbi Posen. Make it a great day or not, the choice is yours.” Ultimately, while teaching about values and responsibilities, these little moments of wisdom reminded us each day that we all have a choice to make. We can choose to have a great day, or we can chose to dwell on the negative. We can choose to let go of resentment, or we can choose to let it fester. Choice is a freedom we are afforded as Americans, and as we learn when we mature, we are held accountable for each choice we make.
Parshat Mishpatim, our parshah this week, shifts from the narrative of Moshe and the Israelites in the desert to a steady stream of laws and rules for living in the world. The substance of thisparshah deals with criminal matters, humanitarian considerations, divine promises, warnings against assimilation, and the ratification of the covenant between God and the Israelites. These laws come as a continuation from the Decalogue given in last week’s parshah and aim to teach the newly freed nation of Israel about their responsibility as a society.
The first set of laws focuses on laws of workers, referred to as “slaves” in the Torah. These are not the same as slaves kept under Egyptian rule, but rather those who work for a fixed period of time to repay a debt or as a result of bankruptcy. This model set forth beginning in chapter 21 of sefer Shemot tells us that workers are to be treated as human beings, and in these laws we read that consideration must also be given to a worker’s family.
The Torah also provides us with a term limit for a worker, “A worker should serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free without payment.” This verse teaches that emancipation is the right of the slave and that no compensation is due to the master. At this time, a worker may decide whether or not they wish to remain with their master. Some might be intimidated by the prospect of freedom; others would embrace it. The choice is theirs.
Just as the newly free Israelites were given boundaries by God with our calendar in parshat Bo, so too a worker is given the choice to decide a future after servitude. The Torah teaches that to be fully human, people must take responsibility for their own lives. Our “Project Wisdom” quote for the week: Today, take the time to make a list of the principles you believe in, your own special rules for how you want to be the best person you can be. Then think about how those principles help you make better choices. With something to think about, this is Rabbi Posen. Make it a great day…or not. The choice is yours.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) is our tradition’s original Project Wisdom. With familiar sayings like “The world stands on three things: Torah, service, and acts of loving kindness (1:2),” this part of the Mishnah is made up of a series of ethical principles that are less concerned with legal opinions than with aphorisms for how to live good lives.