Exodus 21:1 – 24:18
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Human beings are not rational creatures. We say we are rational, and we like to think we are rational, but we have the capacity, and at times the inclination, to be deeply irrational. Today, it feels like we are surrounded by irrationality. For all we know, we ourselves might have embraced and acted upon ideas that others find irrational.
Despite what we might think, there is nothing new here.
Just look at this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim. This is the portion which follows directly on the heels of the Ten Commandments. Mishpatim (laws) is where the rubber hits the road, where we get into the nitty gritty of Jewish law. It contains more laws than any other section of the Torah, so that the people of Israel can learn how to put God’s Commandments into practice.
Where does it begin?
The rational approach might be to start with laws about how to build a free society.
Mishpatim begins with the laws for holding a Hebrew slave:
And these are the laws that you shall set before them. Should you buy a Hebrew slave, six years he shall serve and in the seventh he shall go free, with no payment. If he came by himself, he shall go out by himself. If he was husband to a wife, his wife shall go out with him. If his master should give him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself. And if the slave should solemnly say, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go free,” his master shall make him approach God, and make him, approach the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him perpetually … [Ex. 1:1 – 6]
And this is just the beginning. The laws of Hebrew slavery continue for another 15 verses. How can this be? Haven’t we just been freed after enduring hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt?
If we were pure rational beings, the answer would be simple. Knowing how terrible slavery is, God would outlaw slavery completely and all Israel would comply. God, however, in addition to knowing the horrors of slavery, also knows human nature. From the comfort of our armchairs, having grown up in democratically free societies, we could not be further removed from the reality of the newly redeemed Israelites. For generations the only life they have known has been as Egyptian slaves. Yes, they have been freed, but they are still in the Wilderness, living with uncertainty and fear of the unknown. To ask them to live in a world without slaves is to ask them to do the utterly unimaginable. Instead, Torah meets the Israelites exactly where they are – with the familiar.
This is not to say that Torah sees slavery as a good thing – quite the opposite. So, you want slaves? No problem – here are the rules for how to be a slave owner. Where there are rules, then there are limits – and the further we go into the laws of slavery, the more limits we find, the more obligations placed upon the owner and the more rights ascribed to the slaves. Taken as a whole, the laws for slavery make being a slave owner more of a burden than a benefit – in effect nudging the Israelites gently away from the practice altogether.
Let’s consider the verses we just read above. There is a six-year time limit on holding a slave, after which he becomes the full equal of the owner. How could that knowledge modify the behavior of the master to the slave? In addition, the conditions required to create a perpetual slave are significant – the slave would have to accept marriage with another slave, and have children together, and then agree to a degrading and demeaning public ceremony. Given that both the slaves and the owners would be familiar with these laws, it is unlikely that this was commonly done. What Torah effectively does is to transform slavery into a temporary condition, and one that is associated with humiliation. Over a relatively short time, slavery disappeared completely from Jewish society – which of course was the plan. The very fact that we are disturbed by these verses is proof that the intention of Torah has been carried out, and that slavery has been removed.
But wait, there’s more!
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that despite our extraordinary capacity for good, human beings have a history (in Torah and in the world) of not meeting God’s hopes for creation. Adam and Eve, the very first generation, learned to lie to God. In the second-generation Cain killed his brother Abel. Ten generations later the world was so filled with human violence that God sent the Flood and tried to start over with Noah and his family. Instead of trying to work with all of humanity, God choose to find just the right person, Abraham, and work to create with and through him. Yet, only four generations later, Joseph’s brothers debated whether to kill him or sell him off as a slave.
God tells Abraham about the future slavery in Egypt, and the future redemption. Rabbi Sacks teaches that God understood this as the only way forward:
It took the collective experience of the Israelites, their deep, intimate, personal, backbreaking, bitter experience of slavery – a memory they were commanded never to forget – to turn them into a people who would no longer turn their brothers and sisters into slaves, a people capable of constructing a free society, the hardest of all achievements in the human realm.1
Neither Torah nor history have been easy teachers. However, both have given us a strong collective memory, reminding us of the value and fragility of human life and dignity, and pointing us in the right direction. Freedom is a choice – it is actively created, not passively received.
What will we choose?