Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Mishpatim
To dedicate this lesson



Rabbi Berel Wein

The parsha opens with the issue of slavery. The Torah discusses the laws of servitude, those of a Jewish servant who voluntarily enters slavery or is sold into slavery for his crimes and those of a non-Jewish slave who is involved in a situation of possible life-long slavery. The Jewish slave is a servant for a limited time - it is as though he hires himself out for a period of time. The non-Jewish servant does not have that definition, he is a servant for life, and can be freed only by his owner’s wish. What I find interesting is that the Torah does not address the moral question of slavery itself. Abraham Lincoln, whose bicentennial is now being commemorated in the United States famously said "If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong." So the presence of the dry laws regarding slaves in this week’s parsha strikes the modern sensitivities of Jews as somewhat strange and anachronistic. Many apologists have attempted to deal with this difficult nettle in the rose garden of the Torah. The Torah constantly reminds the Jewish people of their own miraculous deliverance from Egyptian slavery. The rule of the Torah is that what is hateful unto you should not be done by you to others. If so, where is there room for slavery in the matrix of Jewish life and values? This problem is as I mentioned above, a very troublesome one. It is an example of our being unable to understand rationally with human minds and sensitivities of the eternal Godly laws of the Torah.

The Torah itself seems to limit if not even prevent the practice of slavery among the Jews. The laws that proscribe the keeping of slaves lead to the conclusion that one who owns a slave really owns a master over one’s self. These laws also prevent any violence to be done to the slave so that any form of slavery among Jews certainly was benighted and uplifted in comparison with the usual forms of slavery that existed in the ancient world and that remain in our world even today. Even so, the matter does not rest easily for us for the concept of slavery itself remains somewhat repugnant to our sensibilities and society. I have no magic bullet solution to this difficulty. My faith is not shaken by it and I can remain puzzled and yet a believer. Maybe that is one of the lessons that the Torah wishes to impose upon us. There are situations and laws that will appear strange to the human mind and difficult to justify and deal with. We will have to admit that our thoughts are not those of God and that the finite can never understand and appreciate the ways of the infinite. The Torah does not justify slavery and it does not ban it either. It tells us that there are laws that govern such a situation. But essentially it leaves the matter up to human society to deal with it. And so it remains throughout all of human history.
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