And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them. If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall work for six years and on the seventh, he shall go free for nothing. (From this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-2).
This week’s Torah portion talks about the essence of the Torah: Liberty, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; the rectification of the world. Finally, after the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah, we are beginning to hear an orderly outline of our actual lives according to the Torah.
But what a disappointment! The first law in the portion takes us back to servitude, to slavery. This is the grand message? Couldn’t we have begun with the laws of damages? About what happens if an ox gores someone’s property? An eye for an eye? Why start specifically here? It’s rather awkward when the first thing the uninitiated hear is the laws of slavery. The first thing that comes into people’s minds is, ‘How lucky that today’s society is not run according to the Torah!’
But if we are to be honest with ourselves, we will admit that slavery still exists today – and it even thrives. True, we have progressed, thank G-d, and we do not encounter genuine slaves. But slavery and servitude are alive and well; servitude to the state and law, slavery to the banks, to the major corporations, to one’s employer or employment and even human trafficking.
Modern man lives the illusion of liberty, but it is merely a fool’s paradise. He has freedom and plenty of free time. But he does not enjoy true liberty and even merits less of it than in the past. Freedom is the abrogation of responsibility; liberty is its shouldering.
Until the past generations, in which the face of official slavery changed and put on a more sophisticated mask, slavery was officially recognized in the most progressive countries. Nobody got out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin after only seven years. Uncle Tom was not the first to get the only pillow in the house (as dictated by Torah law); none of Jefferson’s other slaves had any pillow, at all.
Before the Torah engages in the ordinary laws of damages, it sets a new standard. It takes into account that servitude exists – be it direct, as in the past, or indirect, as it is today. The enslavement of people by other people is a fact of life. It has to be fought, but it will probably not be absolutely eliminated. If you give tenure, you will get temporary workers. If you close down the placement agencies, you will get a different form of slavery.
The Torah tells us that servitude is part of human nature. But we must know how to conduct ourselves within that reality. “A person who bought a Hebrew slave bought himself a master,” our Sages teach. Slavery according to the Torah was actually akin to providing the slave with a foster family. He was given a private rehabilitation center; something unequaled even among those nations that flaunt their liberal approach.
The Torah laws of slavery are actually the laws of exiting slavery. Until 150 years ago, every American was required by law to turn over an escaped slave to his master. More than 3,000 years before that, the Torah commands us, “You shall not turn over a slave to his master.” (Deuternomy 23:16). This is in complete contrast to the Hammurabi Laws and other ancient codices.
The foundation of liberty is the factor that sets the Torah apart from the laws of the other nations. True liberty stems only from accepting the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is directed at all aspects of life: national liberty, economic liberty, everything.