“And these are the laws that you shall set before them:”
The Torah gave the Jews 613 commandments. G-d brought 10 of them down from Mount Sinai. They begin with the most basic: “I am the Lord, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. You shall not have gods of others in My presence.”
But that is not the first law in this week’s Torah portion. Instead, the Torah went to the dregs of society: the Hebrew slave, a man caught stealing or borrowing money that he could not repay, somebody who fell so low that he had to sell himself.
“If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work six years and, in the seventh year, he shall go free without payment. If he comes alone, he shall leave alone. If he is a married man his wife shall go out with him.”
There are two kinds of societies. The first is familiar to us: A society dominated by the wealthy and powerful. They make and break the rules. Their excuse is that they are superior and know more than the masses. Their wealth is directly linked to the manipulation of the poor.
Then, there is the ideal Jewish society: Its laws and mores focus on the poor, deprived and alienated. The Torah spends much ink in establishing safeguards to ensure that the poor are protected from the powerful, that judges avoid corruption and treat litigants equally. Public ceremonies are geared to the poor rather than the rich. Our liturgy calls the Jews “the rejected of Israel.” The stranger is to be loved. This is a society based on justice and mercy.
The Torah, however, does not deny reality. It recognizes the inequality in society, regardless of its ideals. There are the rich and the poor; the strong and the weak. But the basis of Jewish society is freedom — the ambition of every human being, whatever his place in the world.
Slavery was not forbidden in Jewish law. But the rules that govern slavery favor the indentured over their masters. First, the master is encouraged to take a Jewish rather than a gentile slave. A Jewish slave must be cared for spiritually as well as physically. The master must support the slave and the family he brings with him. If there is one bed or meal left, the slave receives it. The master cannot be arbitrary with his slave. He cannot be ordered around to do meaningless work. The maximum he can be held is six years. When the slave ends his term the master must provide him with a generous severance package. Under these conditions, the Talmud concludes that the master is actually the slave.
But the protection given by the Torah could give the slave ideas. His life has been so sweet, so carefree, that he does not want to leave. In slavery, he has two wives — one given by his master. The slave has another set of children — all free of charge and without marital restrictions. Now, he is being asked to give all this up.
“I love my master, my wife, and my children,” the slave says. “I will not go free.”
That tradeoff of financial security for freedom is the basis of modern life. The farmer is forced off his land for an eight-meter square box in the city. His job is menial; his bills and taxes are suffocating. If he’s out on the street, he’s to blame.
This is where the state steps in. Man is promised permanent employment in exchange for lifetime commitment. In some countries, the contract for life stipulates food for sterilization. If life becomes too difficult, suicide can be made painless.
For the Torah, there is no alternative. The slave who refuses to be free opposes all that Judaism stands for: serving G-d and not man. To serve G-d, man must be free and never forget that servitude, regardless of how benign, is unnatural.
But the Torah does not force the slave to leave his master. Freedom means the ability to decide. The Torah respects his choice regardless of the consequences.
“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.”
The ear that is bored was the one that dismissed G-d’s first commandment at Sinai. The doorpost is a reminder of how G-d protected the Jewish people on the night of their redemption so that on the next morning they would be free from Pharaoh and embrace their Maker.
In the end, the Torah gives the slave the freedom that he had rejected. The slave would remain in his position at least until the Jubilee, the 50-year mark when all are set free regardless of their desire. But that man had made a fateful decision of abandoning the life G-d wanted for a life of ease, a life without decisions, a life without responsibility, a life of an animal rather than a human being. He has traded in a life of nobility for that of ridicule. One day, his children will be free while he remains an elderly servant.
Was it worth it?