Mishpatim - Jewish Slavery?
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Following the giving of the Torah in last week's Parsha, the Torah pauses
in its chronological presentation of the events to introduce laws of social
interaction and justice. A full spectrum of social laws are presented in
Parshas Mishpatim: the Jewish slave and maidservant, manslaughter, personal
injury and damages, custodianship, seduction, occult practices, money
lending, and the three main holidays, to name but a few.
- Why are these laws discussed at this juncture in the Torah; first
conclude the story of Revelation and then discuss social law?
- A nation that had just been freed from centuries of bondage should find
slavery abhorrent, and the suggestion that they might engage in the
enslavement of their own brethren deeply insulting. Why begin the body of
social law and justice with the emotionally challenging cases of the Jewish
slave and maidservant?
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a perspective on this Parsha that is
fundamental to understanding the entire Torah. The last five of the 10
Commandments focus on the laws dealing with human relations and
interaction. The presence of G-d in religious practices and observances is
standard for all religions; however, the total inclusion of G-d in our
familial and social lives, is unique to observant Judaism. As we know from
the famous story of Hillel and the convert, the clearest expression of
Hashem in our lives is when His wishes are manifest in our social
engagements and behaviors. Therefore, immediately following the conferral
of the last five commandments that focus on social law, the Torah presents
the more detailed framework of social and personal responsibilities found
in this weeks Parsha.
If you or I were to write a legal and moral constitution for society, we
would likely choose to begin with a set of laws that reflect the greatness
of our heritage and the goals toward which we aspire. We might select the
laws of charity or the sanctity of the Bais Hamikdash. We might highlight
the laws of honor and awe for parents or the respect necessary for monarchs
and judges. We might even begin with a presentation of the sanctity of life
and the rights of personal property. However, we certainly wouldn't have
chosen the laws of an apprehended thief who, unable to pay back what he
stole, is sold to another Jew as a means of rehabilitation and recompense!
We certainly would not begin the body of social, familial, and personal law
with the Jewish maidservant who is sold to another family by her own
father! In fact, the opposite is true. The laws dealing with the Jewish
slave and maidservant are the very first laws in Parshas Mishpatim!
Our adherence to Torah and Rabbinic law is fundamental to the sanctity and
preservation of Judaism. We govern our lives by the Halacha because we
believe that both the Written and the Oral Torah were given to Moshe on Har
Sinai. If we approach the study of the Written Torah independent of the
Oral Law, our analysis, study, critique, and conclusions would be 100%
wrong. Having been created in the image of G-d, we delve into Hashem's
instructions in an attempt to better understand our responsibilities and
how we might emulate divine actions and intent. The will of G-d can only be
interpreted while contiguously cross referencing its associate oral
explanation. To do any less is to pursue our own image rather than the
image of G-d. By introducing social law with the emotionally imposing cases
of the Jewish slave and maidservant, it demands that we seek out the Oral
Law for further information and understanding. Can this be? Can we enslave
another human being created in the image of Hashem? Can a father truly sell
his daughter for so much barter or cash?
The Written Torah should be viewed as the abbreviated notes that the
student writes during a much more elaborate and involved lecture. Every
word, line, circle, highlight, cross-out, or case history and example has
meaning to the student as he reconstructs the lecture. It is the Oral Law
which reconstructs the notes into the more elaborate lecture that Moshe
received from G-d on Har Sinai. Hashem's intent in presenting specific
cases such as the Jewish slave or maidservant was to illustrate essential
legal principals that can be applied to other instances and circumstances.
True, slavery and indentured servitude are abhorrent to our thinking;
however, the Eved Ivri is a far cry from the "slaves" of other societies.
The Amaah Ivriah is not the callused act of an uncaring chauvinistic father
selling his daughter to the highest bidder. Both cases are extreme examples
of human dignity and individual rights as they are dispatched with
responsibility, compassion, and justice. Hashem, in His infinite wisdom,
began His presentation of social and familial law by focusing on the very
instances where other societies would deny the rights of the individual and
relegate the destiny of a thief, or a young impoverished girl, to the whims
and limits of human emotions. Instead, the Torah, rather than have the
thief languish in some prison with no hope of bettering himself, caring for
his family, or paying back his debt, shows care and concern for the Jewish
thief by placing him in a nurturing environment where he can develop into a
caring and responsible member of society. The young girl is from an
impoverished family were she has little hope of receiving the training and
schooling otherwise afforded by a wealthier home. Her father, hoping to
better his daughter's lot, can arrange for his daughter to live with a
family where she would be trained in the intricacies and protocols of
maintaining a proper home - for a limited period of time. There was also
the possibility of marrying into that family, and by the time her training
period had concluded, both the host family and the girl could make an
educated and emotionally sound decision.
If you wish to evaluate the moral fiber of a society, research the way they
treat their imprisoned and their unfortunate; then you will know whether or
not the society is founded upon the values of human dignity and individual
rights. This is why our Parsha begins with these laws.
Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.