And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them. Should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work [for] six years, and in the seventh [year], he shall go out to freedom without charge. If he comes [in] alone, he shall go out alone; if he is a married man, his wife shall go out with him. [Exodus 21:1-3]
The scene takes place immediately after the Children of Israel leave Mount Sinai, where they had been given the Ten Commandments. And then came the laws because as the Midrash says, “The entire Torah depends on the law.” The Torah is not a history book, a philosophical tract or a bedtime story. It’s meant to be honored and observed.
Therefore, it appears unusual in our weekly Torah portion Mishpatim, or “Laws,” that the first is about the purchase and maintenance of a Jewish slave. If there is a link to the Ten Commandments, the first law should have been akin to “I am the Lord, your G-d…”
The 13th Century commentator Moses Ben Nachman says that’s exactly the link — if you read the next few words of the first commandment — “who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”
G-d identifies Himself as the One who liberated the Jew from slavery. Now, that you are free, you must do everything to redeem your brother from servitude. He must be free like you are. In other words, the first law in the Torah connects G-d to the lowest person in Israelite society — the Jewish slave.
The Talmud tells us the conditions of the Jewish slave. He must live under the same conditions as his master. He cannot be harassed, denied sleep or food or even given work that his master did not need. If his master takes a vacation in the penthouse of a five-star holel in Monaco, then the slave must enjoy the same conditions. Little wonder that the Talmud ends up saying that in this relationship the master is the slave and the slave is the master.
But how many of us would want that status to end. Sure, I’m a slave but my master is giving me everything. He’s even given me a wife and we have kids together. Sure, I have to work for him. But do you so-called free people on the outside have it so great? How many jobs do you have to work at to pay your mortgage and monthly bills? I don’t own anything. But neither do I owe anything.
If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave says, “I love my master, my wife, and my children. I will not go free.” [Exodus 21:4-5]
What cost freedom? Abraham Ben Meir Ben Ezra has been regarded as one of the greatest sages in our history. He grew up in Spain in the 11th Century and experienced oppression and tragedy virtually all of his life. He was born in Tudela under Muslim rule, where slavery was commonplace with the arrival of captives from Africa. He and his wife produced five children, all but one said to have died young. The youngest Issac survived and became an influential poet. In 1140, the elderly rabbi watched his son convert to Islam. Abraham Ben Meir was heartbroken and wrote verse to describe his pain. He then wandered Europe and the Middle East for nearly the next 30 years until his death.
On the road, Abraham Ben-Meir wrote a commentary on the Torah and specifically on the case of the Jewish slave. The position of a Jew being a slave is unbearable regardless of his condition. “There is nothing in the world more difficult than being in the custody of a person like himself. Therefore, the law begins with the slave.”
Given this, it cannot be easy for a Jew in much of the world. In Japan, workers rarely make decisions by themselves, are consigned to a high level of conformity and pursue a cradle-to-grave existence that promise security in exchange for total obedience. The result is extreme pressure, overwork, sickness and even suicide. Many of the tens of thousands who kill themselves every year do so in the woods around Aokigahara, known as “Suicide Forest,” located around 150 kilometers west of Tokyo. Some workers are given special beverages that would allow them to work endless hours at a time. A similar work lifestyle can be seen in China — where most employees maintain a schedule of 10 a.m to 10 p.m.
In contrast, the Jew was not meant to be a slave. If he insists on staying after his term is up, the Jewish court berates him: Why do you reject your freedom? Don’t you realize that freedom is divine will? Maybe you didn’t hear that at Mount Sinai.
His master shall bring him to the judges, and he shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall bore his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever. [Exodus 21:6]
Why does G-d want us to be free? Because freedom allow us to choose, and man is based on free choice. G-d does not want mindless slaves — even to Him. He wants us to fear G-d and love Him — but not because he cannot think, feel or decide. That’s not divine worship.
The purveyors of slavery have now taken over many Western countries. Democracy no longer represents the people. Ordinary people do not choose; they are ordered. It is all presented as in the best interests of the people. But in the end, they are frightened and coerced — whether to stay indoors for months at a time, avoid their parents, wear masks, take injections on a regular basis. They are harangued about their desire for meat, milk, cheese, transport, speech and finally thought.
Many Jews have bought into this slavery. Like the Chinese and Japanese, slavery promises security, acceptance and reward. The laws in this week’s Torah portion are meant to be for Jews. Jews are meant to observe these laws in their own courts — not those of the gentiles, regardless of how expert they are in the Torah.
But in our long exile, Jewish law is not honored, particularly by those who call themselves secular or modern. They have adopted and honor gentile law. So, what’s a Jewish court to do if one of the litigants announces that he will not abide by the decision of the judges? Do something to me, he mocks.
Hezekiah ben Manoah, the 13th Century French commentator known as Chizkuni, does not expect that the Jewish court gain the power to enforce its decisions. But he foresees the possibility that the gentiles themselves will do that job — force the renegade Jew to observe the Torah, its laws and the decisions by the rabbis. That Jew has no respect for the Jewish court. But he has plenty of fear of the gentile. G-d will ensure that this Jew will obey. The only question is who will do the dirty work.
“But if they [Jewish court] issues a sentence and he does not comply, it is permissible to force him through the gentiles until he does what the judges of Israel decided regarding him,” the Chizkuni says.