Torah Reading for Week of February 16-22, 2020
By Rabbi/Cantor Arik Wollheim, AJRCA Professor of Liturgical Studies
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 last week’s parsha, (sidra) Yitro, we read the basis of our Jewish law, the Ten Commandments which opens with the verse “I am your God who took you out of Egypt from the house of bondage.”
However, this week parsha, Mishpatim, opens with the laws of slavery.
How is it possible that the first commandment, where God “introduces” Himself as the God who rejects slavery, who took the Jews from the house of slavery in front of the entire world, that that God would continue to ordain slaves?!
The answer lies in the laws of slavery which appear for the first time in this week’s parsha.
The Torah talks about a Hebrew slave who can work up to 7 years and must be released on the Sh’mita year (sabbatical) or Yovel year, (Jubilee, the 50th year) whichever comes first. The employer does not own the slave, only the slave’s work. The employer may not humiliate the slave. The employer may not ask the slave to perform any work that is not directly described as his duty. The employer must take care of his slave’s welfare: food, drinks and accommodations at a level equivalent to his own. A physical injury of the slave would result in a lawsuit identical to any other case of assault. The slave cannot work more than the agreed number of hours in a day. In simple terms, a Hebrew slave is a hired live-in help.
Chazal in the Talmud (Kidushin 22A) expressed that view by saying “כל הקונה עבד עברי כקונה אדון לעצמו” (anyone who acquires a Hebrew slave, acquires a master for himself).
The Torah rejects the idea of slavery and proclaim more than once in a clear voice “כי עבדי הם” (they are my servants) explaining every person has only one master – God Himself. In its brilliancy the Torah takes a term the Jews were familiar with, slavery, and completely strips it out from its old meaning thus teaching us both the negative perspective on slavery and the positive and compassionate one toward those individuals who ended up in those unfortunate circumstances.
There are two cases in which an individual becomes a slave: inability to financially support oneself, or inability to return or pay back a theft committed.
In the first case, the slavery period will enable the slave to acquire a profession, experience and financial base that would ensure a new beginning and financial independence. In the second, while living with and working for a family, the slavery period serves also as a rehabilitation program helping the slave not only to achieve financial independence but also to learn of right and wrong and making him/her a lawful and moral citizen.
Our parsha is not the only one which teaches the laws of slaves. In Parshat Behar (Vayikra 25; 39-43) the Torah repeats some and adds to the laws of slavery. It reminds us of these ideas by using the term אחיך your brother hence commanding us to remember that one’s slave must be always seen as a brother. The third time we learn about slavery in the Torah appears in Parshat Re’eh (Deut 15; 12-18) where we learn of the moral and social responsibility that we have toward our brethren who are less fortunate.
But what about a slave who not Jewish? What is the Torah’s view in this case?
In order to answer this question, I would like to quote the Rambam (1138-1204 Spain) in the very last Halacha he wrote in the laws of slaves. Here, the Rambam not only gives the Halacha but also expresses the view of the Torah and sets the desired standards
“It is permissible to work a heathen slave relentlessly. Even though it is lawful, the quality of benevolence and the paths of wisdom demand of a human being to be merciful and strive for justice. One should not press his heavy yoke on his slave and torment him, but should let him eat and drink of everything. The sages of old were in the habit of sharing with the slave every dish they ate, and they fed the cattle as well as the slaves before they themselves sat down to eat.- – Nor should a master disgrace his servant by hand or by words; the biblical law surrendered them to servitude, but not to disgrace (Niddah 47a). He should not madly scream at his servant, but speak to him gently and listen to his complaints.- -The progeny of our father Abraham, however, the people of Israel upon whom God bestowed the goodness of the Torah, commanding them to keep the laws of goodness, are merciful toward all creatures. So too, in speaking of the divine attributes, which he has commanded us to imitate, the psalmist says: “His mercy is over all his works” (Psalm 145:9). Whoever is merciful will receive mercy, as it is written: “He will be merciful and compassionate to you and multiply you” (Deuteronomy 13:18). “ (Rambam Mishne Torah, Book of Kinyan, Slaves 9;8)
The Rambam, while acknowledging reality, teaches us what is the expected behavior in this matter and in general. A non-Jewish slave should be treated like a Jewish one.
Now, you may ask, why does the Torah “settle” for fair and compassionate attitude towards slavery and not abolish it altogether?
There’s a saying that if you’re one step ahead you are considered a genius, but if you’re two steps ahead you’re a lunatic.
The Torah ultimately strives for a world without any slavery כי עבדי הם A human being can never be the subject of another, only of God; however, the world in which the Torah was given was not ready to accept a radical idea such as the complete eradication of slavery. In the US for example slavery was abolished only in the 19th century. Introducing such an idea thousands of years ago would result in a complete and total rejection.
This principle can be found in other places in the Torah like אשת יפת תאר the permission to take a woman in captivity during a battle where the Torah allows the soldier to take the woman solely for the purpose of marriage but not rape as was the norm at that time. Another example is בן סורר ומורה a rebellious child who is put to death by the court. Here, the Talmud explains that such case never happened and the law appears in the Torah only as a warning, hence showing us the reservation for the capital punishment in general, and the accepted norm at the time that parents could do whatever they wanted with their children. Another case is animal sacrifices where The Rambam explains that the Torah, despite allowing and describing animal sacrifice, rejects the idea of animal sacrifice and allowing it only as temporary form to get closer to God, based on the reality of those times.
In its wisdom, the Torah starts a process in which we are called to partner with God and advance the world, so that the world will be ready to accept the views of the Torah, views that have often been revealed and accepted only thousands of years later.