Receiving the Ten Commandments may have been the pinnacle of the
Jewish experience, but by no means did Judaism end there. In
this week's portion the Torah details a myriad of pecuniary laws,
which include torts and damage law, as well as the laws of physical
injury and impairment compensation. A nation that has just emerged
from a brutal enslavement surely needs a strict code to discipline
their freedom. But what bothers me is the order of the laws that
are given this week. The first commandments, in a set of more
than 50 intricate laws detailing almost every aspect of life's
complexities, concern the laws of servitude. Parshas Mishpatim
begins with the words, "when you will acquire a Jewish servant,
he shall serve six years and on the seventh he shall go free."
It is astounding. The Jews just spent the last 210 years as slaves.
Why would they even entertain thoughts of taking servants? Shouldn't
the first laws dictate compassion for other humans, thus enforcing
total equality of an entire, newly liberated nation? Of all the
laws dictated to a newly liberated people, shouldn't the concepts
of masters and servants be loath to them? Why are those laws given
Shalom had never left the small hamlet in Yemen and finally
was sent a ticket to Israel by his cousin Moshe. The airplane
ride, his first experience with any technology, was absolutely
frightening. Not only was it the first time he had seen an airplane,
it was the first time he had even seen steps! Upon his arrival
at Ben-Gurion airport, the mad rush of taxis truly terrified Shalom,
but his cousin Moshe, who lived on a small settlement not far
from the Lod train station, eased his fears by sending a driver
to pick Shalom up from the airport.
The driver dropped off the dazed immigrant near the train station
and gave him directions to the farm. "Walk beside the train
tracks for about a mile. You can't miss it," he exclaimed.
Shalom, who had never seen train tracks in his life and had never
even seen a train, chose to walk right between the two iron tracks.
After about five minutes he saw a giant machine bearing down directly
"Toot toot!" the train whistled. The conductor waved
frantically at Shalom as he tried to stop the mammoth machine.
Shalom froze as he stood aghast at this marvelous site. "Toot
toot!" went the whistle once more. The train could not stop!
At the last moment, Shalom quickly jumped out of the way and
the train hurtled by, missing him by a hair. Shalom was thrown
by the rush of air that accompanied the speeding train. As he
picked himself up, all he could see was a enormous black beast
fleeing down the track, mocking him with a shrill, "toot
Bruised and shaken he hobbled the rest of the way along the
tracks until he arrived at his cousin's farm.
Moshe saw his cousin, Shalom and could not have imagined what
happened to him. But Moshe figured, there was time to talk over
a glass of hot tea. He put up a shiny black kettle to boil on
the stove, but no sooner had the kettle began to whistle when
poor Shalom jumped from his chair and began to shout. He grabbed
a broom that stood in the corner of the kitchen and swung wildly
at the whistling teapot smashing it with all his might.
"Believe me," he yelled, "I know! You have to
destroy these monsters while they are still young!"
The Torah understood the Jewish nation's feelings toward its own
experience. Slavery is loathsome and reprehensible. The impact
of that experience could have shaped an unhealthy attitude toward
servitude even in a humane and benevolent environment. Therefore
the Torah immediately directed its very humanitarian laws of servitude
-- clearly and openly. Six years of service and no more. A servant
can never be humiliated or degraded. In fact, the rules of Jewish
servitude are so humane that the Talmud surmises that "whoever
owns a servant has actually acquired a master. If there is only
one pillow in the home -- the master must to give it to
So instead of shirking from the difficult task of detailing the
laws of servitude or pushing them to a back-burner, the Torah
discusses those laws first -- without any apologies.
Because in an imperfect world there are imperfect situations.
People steal. They owe money. They must work for others to pay
off debt or money they have swindled. But when the problems and
injustices of life are dealt with in a Torah way, the imperfect
world can get a little closer to perfection.
The author is the Associate Dean of the
Yeshiva of South Shore.
Drasha is the e-mail edition of FaxHomily, a weekly torah facsimile
on the weekly portion
which is sponsored by The Henry and Myrtle Hirsch Foundation