In Parshah Mishpatim we transition in Exodus from a narrative, a story of a people, their enslavement, and their journey to freedom to
“now these are the laws that you Moses, shall set before them.”
Why do we care about this? The Israelites didn’t know how to act as a free people after all they had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years. And needed guidance on how to behave as free people. Since the Israelites had left slavery it should not be surprising that the first set of laws mentioned in this parshah are laws about slavery. Exodus 21:2-6 says:
If you buy a Hebrew slave he is to serve you for seven years. But the seventh year, he shall go free.”
What is surprising to me is that the Torah does not abolish slavery. Instead it lists a serious of laws on protecting the slave. The legalized slavery of the Torah only comes to correct some of the pitfalls of slavery. Slavery did exist during this time as an institution, as long as it existed, the Torah gave us laws to protect slaves from abuse and mistreatment. It’s almost as if the Torah could not imagine a world without slavery. Why doesn’t the torah just abolish slavery? Jonathan Sacks says:
“The Torah has already given us an implicit answer. Change is possible in human nature, but it takes time: Time on a vast scale, centuries, even millennia….So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of Gods relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do of our own free will. So Mishpatim does not abolish slavery, but it sets in motion a series of fundamental laws that will lead people, to abolish it of their own accord.
Slavery, has existed probably since the beginning of time. Before modern era, slavery was not based on race, it was based on debt, crime or war. In the case of war, when one group of people defeated the other group, they would often enslave the loser and often these were women.
When slavery came to the New World, there was such a demand for labor that slavery became a whole new animal. Slavery in the United States was not based on debt, war, or a crime, it was only based on biological traits, what we now call race. And slavery became inheritable. I mention this because slavery in this country was wrapped in religious conviction. Meaning that on one hand according to Fredrick Douglass’ autobiography the cruelest slave masters and overseers were devout Christians, usually folks that had some kind of a conversion experience or today we call them born again. Further reading of Douglass’ does not imply that he believed christians were evil. He makes a clear distinction between Christianity of America and the Christianity proper. These slave masters used text in the Torah, to justify slavery. On the other hand you have folks like the Quakers, Methodist and the early evangelicals, campaigning to end slavery. These devout christians were also driven by religious conviction, inspired albeit by the narrative of the Exodus story.
As an American, a woman, a Jew and a person of color I feel intimately connected to the history of slavery. Not only the slavery mentioned in this weeks Torah portion but the history of slavery in the United States and the slavery that continues today. These verses in the Torah reflect the time when the Israelites had crossed over the line and moved from slavery into freedom. You were strangers in the land of Egypt, but now you are a free people and never allowed to forget the experience of slavery.
The laws embedded in this week’s portion, and the ones that will follow stress, that we are to cherish freedom, abhor oppression and deal honestly and equitably with both those whom we love and those whom we hate. We are called upon to build a society that promotes individual responsibility and provides legal protections for all its members.