It is very jarring to see that the first law given to the Jewish people pertains to the treatment of the Israelite’s slaves! Having just been freed from slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt it seems odd to suddenly read about the fact that the Israelites themselves held slaves. How could the Israelites have gone from being slaves to having slaves?
Some rabbis and commentators explain that the laws around the treatment of slaves offered a more humane way of treating servants, even game them some personal rights. This is demonstrated by the fact that after six years they are free to go. Yet with that freedom from servitude, also comes their loss of their source of income. Later on in the parsha, we learn that they too, get a day of rest on Shabbat. This is a further example of the servant being treated with humanity. Yet, even when we see the regulations placed on slave holding, the concept of Jews owning slaves is still troubling.
Rabbi Amy Scheinerman offers another interpretation. She suggests that “Perhaps the Torah begins here to remind us that even when the formal institutions of slavery are dismantled, the experience and reality of slavery remains, taking on new forms in human existence.” She continues by giving examples of working in abysmal conditions, entrapment in dangerous marriages, living in deadly political situations and suffering from debilitating mental anguish.”
Yet at an even simpler level, it can remind us that even when we claim that all men are created equal, that isn’t necessarily true. There are many socioeconomic reasons that keep certain groups of our society enslaved. There are many examples of systemic racism that occurs in a wide array of areas.
In fact, Maryland, which calls itself a free state held slaves for two years after Congress voted to free slaves in the District of Columbia in 1862. And even thought the Emancipation Proclamation declared an end to slavery on January 1, 1863, Maryland didn’t act until 1864 when it held a referendum of which the outcome wasn’t certain. A vote tipped in favor of abolition only after the absentee ballots of soldiers fighting in the North were counted. The final tally read 30,174 for abolishing slavery while 29,799 wanted to continue to keep slaves.
Society does not change overnight. Often, we don’t think about the ways in which we enjoy privilege and opportunity within society. We take our freedoms for granted. Mishpatim instructs us that all must be treated fairly and without bias, regardless of wealth or social status. Yet we still go to socio-economically segregated schools, we still deem certain neighborhoods “bad” and see the effect of drugs and guns on poor communities. The ideal and the reality are not often the same.
Misphatim introduces the idea of slavery not as a permanent position but only as a temporary situation. After six years of labor, the slave may go free. Slaves that want to stay in servitude have to pierce the ear in a painful procedure that includes tying their ear to the doorway. It’s almost as if God is saying, the one who choices a life of servitude for themselves is self-inflicting. Why would people stay in a subservient situation? There is comfort and security in what we know, even when it isn’t a healthy situation.
When all you’ve ever known is slavery, it is hard to leave that behind. By having a legal guidebook, in a new world of freedom, the Israelites had a direction in which to aspire. They had guidance to help them live out the values taught in the Torah, on a daily basis.
We read the Torah from a contemporary lens and what we read seems so antiquated. But are we really so different from our ancestors? Perhaps before we criticize their practice we can admit all the ways we ourselves are enslaved to old habits and unhealthy circumstances as well as the ways we keep others enslaved. Mishpatim teaches us that there is a way to change-the is a moral and behavior code to which we are called. There is a higher standard to which we must rise.