Mishpatim 5780 – Umm – Slavery Endorsed by the Torah

By: Alan Bach

And these are the rules that you shall set before them. When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment. If he came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone. But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before G-d. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life.

The above is the opening six verses of parasha Mishpatim which means rules. Welcome to the initial body of laws, known as The Book of the Covenant, which were transferred by Moses to the Israelites.  Just last week we listened to Becca beautifully lain the ten commandments from paraha Yitro which are the foundation of our value system we still live by today. And this week we read about the laws of slavery and many other areas. Today, the focus will be on the laws governing slavery.

I have to admit, that I had to scratch my head on this one. We have the Israelites that just left 210 years of enslavement in Egypt. G-d brought out of Egypt with his mighty hand by invoking the ten plagues on the Egyptians until our people were free. Some argue that these laws more appropriately define an indentured servant by placing limitations on slavery.

The most important word of the introduction of the mishpatim is the first word, “VE-aleh (ואלה)” – and these. The “veh’s” translation is “and” which sets up a continuation from the ten commandments to the laws. It is interesting that the Etz Chaim Humash leaves the “and” out of its translation of the Hebrew text. We go from the core foundation of the commandments to a more detailed explanation of how we are to conduct ourselves according to rules of law. For more on the Ten Commandments, make sure and attend Larry’s monthly class. Rashi makes the claim that the structure set up in the Torah by the Mishpatim or rules set forth and conveyed to the people of Israel by Moses is a deliberate attempt in the structure of the Torah to place these laws as a central point of the revelation.

The very first commandment, as we studied last week, begins with, “I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt”.  Here G-d makes the exclamation that I brought you out of slavery in Egypt, and now sets forth rules to govern slavery. On the surface this is a major contradiction – I remove you from slavery, but here is how to treat your slaves.

To try to reason and understand this dilemma, I had to separate myself from my personal values based on the history of slavery in the US and other modern-day countries and try to have a mindset of life 2,500 years ago.  Slavery was an expectation of the times across all cultures. The Israelites that crossed the Red Sea did not know any other way of life but slavery.

Who is a Hebrew slave in these times, why would one Jew consider the purchase of another Jew as a slave, and why would a Jew choose to sell himself as a slave? RASHI rationalizes this dilemma by explaining that the slave is either a person that cannot support themselves and/or meet their debts, or the courts have sold a person that has stolen from another and is unable to pay back their debts.

The laws set up a structure for this slave or servant to pay back their master through servitude and then to be set free after seven years. And then there is the case where a slave may want the security of not having to support themselves by electing to stay with their master at which time the master will pierce their ear at the doorposts of the house making them his slave forever.  A parallel is made to the smearing of lamb’s blood upon the doorpost during the tenth plague, the slaying of the first born. Is this act meant to imply the slave is now the master’s animal forever? We have a person who prefers a life without the need to make decisions or the worries of how to care for themselves.

I still have some difficulty rationalizing the acceptance of these laws based on what I consider to be unethical behavior. But is it fair of me to pass judgment on a code of laws from 2,500 years ago which are based on societal norms of the time? Should these laws be accepted simply because they are in the Torah. It is the norm of many modern-day Jews to make exceptions to the original mitzvot dictated in the Torah to handle the necessities of modern times. There is another mishpatim to not work on the Sabbath, but we invent concepts like an eruv to rationalize carrying, people use a Shabbat elevator to avoid climbing steps, and we use electricity on Shabbat for comfort and convenience.

Perhaps the Torah is teaching us that there is a more humane way to treat the downtrodden and the oppressed. Current estimations are there are somewhere between 20 and 40 million people enslaved in some manner around the world.  And what about the severe homeless problem we have in this country and in most others. Another way to rationalize this issue is to understand there are various levels of slavery. There are still people forced into slavery today from generation to generation such as the Jews in Egypt were and the Africans captured and brought to this country were. Rabbi Jonathan Saks explains it well in his commentary about the Mishpatim, “These laws…they turn slavery from an existential fate to a temporary condition. Slavery is not what you are or how you were born, but some thing that has happened to you for a while and from which you will one day be liberated.” I do believe there is a difference in the slavery of oppression and the slavery mandated in the Torah.

Like always seems to be the case, maybe the Torah was forward looking and not hypocritical with the establishment of these laws of slavery.  I am still scratching my head on this one because I don’t have the answer. And what better way to end a Torah discussion than with a question.  I will leave it to you to form your own conclusion. Do the laws of slavery established in the Torah allow people to work themselves back to a position of strength eventually allowing them to live free after their indentured servitude, or is it better to have people lose all dignity by sleeping on the sidewalk, digging through the trash for food and begging for spare change?

Shabbat Shalom

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