Torah Reading for Week of September 8-14, 2019
“The Torah and the Asylum Seeker”
By Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, PhD, AJRCA President & Professor of Mysticism & Rabbinics
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
In this week’s parsha there are many commandments highlighting the depth of compassion and thoughtfulness of our Torah, some restrictive verses that present challenges to our modern consciousness, and some that are particularly relevant to our contemporary reality.
Among the sensitive commandments that emphasize behaviors that elevate the dignity and respect that must bestowed on our human family and all its inhabitants are the following: 1) Remove a dead body hanging from a tree as swiftly as possible and bury him or her (21:22), 2) return a lost article (22:1), 3) Lift up a fallen Ox, (22:4), 4) Place a protective fence on your roof to prevent injury that may occur, (22:8), 5) Do not plow with an Ox and a Donkey together for they both feed at a different pace(22:10), 6) Fulfill your pledge of charity(23:22), 7) When walking in your neighbor’s field do not fill your pockets with excess grapes or cut down his grain and take it (23:25-6), 8) Do not as a creditor take anything that the debtor requires for his livelihood (24:6), 9) Don’t enter his home uninvited to collect a security deposit, but wait outside (24:10), 10) Don’t delay payment of wages, don’t cheat a poor person or a proselyte for his or her life may depend upon this payment, (24:11-15), 11) Respect the dignity of the orphan and widow, for you were once oppressed slaves in Egypt (24:17), 12) Leave the corners of the field, and that which you forget to gather for the poor (24:19-21), 13) Don’t muzzle your Ox while plowing for the Ox must be able to eat (25:4) and 14) Only utilize accurate weights and measures in your possession, for G-d abhors dishonesty and you must assure a fair and honest society. If you do so you will be assured a lengthy life for dishonesty, exploitation and corruption are an abomination to God and will destroy a humane society (25:13-14).
I would like to highlight one commandment that I think is particularly relevant today. We read in our parsha in Chapter 23, verse 16: “You shall not return an escaped slave to his master, a slave who has fled and is rescued by you. He shall dwell with you in your midst; in whatever place he shall choose in one of your cities which is beneficial to him. You shall not taunt him.” The Torah is saying that it is immoral to send a man or a woman seeking his or her freedom, one who is seeking asylum back to a life of slavery.
At first sight this may not seem fair to the owner. He has paid for the slave. There was no precedent for this outside of the Torah. In some legislative systems the penalty of the runaway slave was death. In the Torah, actually the term ‘Eved’ (slave) was not to be understood as we generally understand the word ‘slave.’ A person became and ‘Eved,’ in one of two ways:1) Either he committed a crime and had no money to repay that which he stole, or 2) he owed a debt to the owner and could not repay it; so rather than remaining homeless, he received shelter and food and worked to repay his debt. In Jewish law, if the owner harmed him physically the Eved goes free. A brutal man can not own a slave. This is true both for a Hebrew slave and a gentile slave (“A Canaanite slave”). In fact, this case in our parsha refers to a heathen slave who flees to the Holy Land for asylum as explained in the Talmud, Gittin 45A!
So why should a slave run away from his master? Being without a home and land of his own, he had nothing to gain. He would be compelled to find another master very soon. Only one factor could be behind the ordinance in our text. CRUELTY by the master- without going so far as to inflict INJURY which would insure freedom. So the verse says, “He shall dwell with Thee.” He is to be helped and encouraged to find a home and not returned to his master.
Let us now look at our modern situation. We have emigrants who are escaping because of cruel situations in Central America, do we not have obligations to provide them sanctuary rather than returning them to cruel situations according to the Torah? Must we not insure legislation that does not split families? “Thou shall not deliver unto his master a slave that has escaped!”
We Jews welcomed our brothers and sisters from the Soviet Union when they escaped oppression, we often did our best to redeem and provide for those who escaped the holocaust. We provided homes for those who escaped from Arab lands and from Ethiopia, and the Torah (as explicated in the Talmud-Gittin 45A) states clearly that in a case of a gentile slave escaping to the Holy Land of Israel, s/he is not to be returned to his or her master, but to be aided in your cities.
How blessed is our Torah, how challenging to our contemporary reality! May we have the strength to live up to the sublime ethics of our tradition, and create the Holy society that our Torah mandates. V’Chein Yehi Ratzon, Amen.