Mishpatim (Laws) – Exodus 21:1 – 24:18
This week’s portion begins with Chapter 21 of the Book of Exodus. It is a portion full of laws, pertaining primarily to the ethical standards of behavior that a Jew must follow, but which actually form the basis of so much of what has become known as Judeo-Christian law and ethics.
The first law discusses the issue of a Hebrew slave. Generally, this involved someone who was heavily in debt and had become unable to function independently economically. He, therefore, sells himself into slavery in order to pay off his debt and provide himself with economic security. The Bible states that slavery of this sort should be limited to six years. However if the slave himself refuses to become free in the seventh year, his master pierces his ear at the doorpost and he becomes a perpetual slave.
This is, indeed, a curious procedure and the Midrash, a collection of the earliest Biblical commentaries, provides a fascinating explanation. According to the Midrash, the Bible is critical of the man who refuses his chance of freedom, even though he is entitled to remain a slave forever. The meaning of the ear-piercing ceremony is to remind this man that he heard the Ten Commandments with his very own ears, that he heard G-d’s statement to the Jewish people that He freed us from Egypt. If G-d has chosen to free us from slavery, what right do we have to reject freedom and choose slavery?
The ramifications of this law are profound indeed. Economic security is, indeed, attractive, and one can be tempted to trade elementary freedoms in order to attain that security. And people often do. The Soviet Union, during its Communist heyday, was a prime example — initially the Russian people embraced Communism because the State was going to provide for their every need. But, in exchange, they forfeited their freedom.
When G-d freed the Jewish people from slavery to their Egyptian masters, He did so in order to enable them to serve a higher master — to become servants of G-d. In fact, only when we are truly servants of G-d are we free of any other masters. Conversely, when we serve a human master, it is difficult to serve G-d in the same independent fashion.
Just the other day, I was interviewed by CNN for a documentary they are preparing on the three major religions. They asked me whether I believed the Bible was written by G-d or whether it was a collection of ancient myths. Of course, I responded that G-d had dictated His word. The interviewer then challenged me regarding slavery, implying that any book that talks about slavery could not be an eternal book as we all agree today that slavery is immoral. I responded that slavery was rampant in the ancient world and the Bible addressed that reality by severely limiting the use of slavery and proscribing the way slaves were to be treated.
What a revolutionary idea it must have been in the ancient world to value freedom to such a great extent. The principle illustrated in the first verses of Exodus chapter 21 as discussed above would not have been common. And yet the Bible presented us with a vision of slavery that enabled us, centuries later, to reject the very concept of slavery. But civilization needed to arrive at that point, and with the help of Biblical messages, it did.
The Bible’s messages are timeless indeed, meaningful to an ancient world as well as to our own, post-modern world. No group of ancients, regardless of how wise, could have ever put such a book together on their own.
Shabbat Shalom From Samaria
Director, Israel Office