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Parashat Mishpatim

February 6, 2013

By Rabbi Judith Edelstein

In this week’s parashah, Mishpatim, “Laws,” we have plummeted from the terse, but exalted proclamation of the Ten Commandments in last week’s reading, Yitro, to the nitty gritty details of everyday life. This section, often referred to as the “Book of the Covenant,” although not exhaustive, as it does not cover every aspect of existence, prescribes rules for a vast range of moral, criminal and civil matters. They range from the treatment of slaves and their families, murder, theft and assault, to behavior towards the stranger and religious observance of the festivals.

What is amazing is that in the opening verse God instructs Moses to speak to all the people in an inclusive manner, “These are the rules that you shall set before them.” (Exodus 21:1) This sets us up with high expectations for what is to follow. None of the other law collections from the Ancient Near East begins with this topic, although they all address the question. “In contrast, the Laws of Hammurabi stipulate that only the aggrieved party could have the laws read to him.” (Torah: A Woman’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss, p. 429)

“[A Hebrew may not be sold as a lifelong slave, for God said:] ‘They are My slaves’ (Lev. 25:42). My claim to owning them came first: ‘whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt’ (ibid.) with the stipulation ‘that they should not be sold as slaves’ (ibid.), (Sifre Leviticus, ed. Weiss, p. 109d)

It is ironic that the first ten laws of Mishpatim focus upon slavery. Yet perhaps the immediacy functions to remind the Israelites of their own recent, narrow escape from servitude in Egypt. The placement of this legislation at the beginning of the parashah is poignant and holds true for all time since the line between freedom and servitude is a thin and slippery one. Simply reading the front page of today’s news connects us with the need to continue to legislate around the problem of contemporary enslavement. What keeps any of us on one side of the line versus the other side is opaque and may be as simple as an accident of birth – “There but for the grace of God go I.”

When newcomers to the Torah read this parashah, they are immediately repelled, unable to fathom how a document that extols justice and equality can also condone and even provide legislation for owning a slave. This is surely a conundrum based upon current values, but we are compelled to look back and consider the context of the time, as with many other aspects of the Torah law. “One might naturally question why the Torah did not simply abolish slavery…The answer lies in the ‘weaning’ theory of Maimonides [Guide of the Perplexed, III:32].” (In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on The Torah, Judith S. Antonelli, p.186.)

In the context of Biblical times, Maimonides explains that pagan ritual had to be transformed gradually since the people were accustomed to specific behaviors. “The Torah was given in a sociological milieu in which slavery and the subjection of women were foundations of society.” (ibid.) What is eye-opening for us today is that these laws in Mishpatim are directed towards improving the social and legal status of the enslaved. This humanistic approach presents itself in many ways, including: he has the right to rest on Shabbat and on festivals; he is avenged if he dies as a result of his master’s beating; the loss of a limb or tooth caused by his master allows him to gain his freedom; a fugitive slave may not be extradited and may live where he chooses; he is limited to six years of service, etc. Female amot, servants, are protected as well to safeguard their rights and protect them from sexual exploitation.

Most of us distance ourselves from this notion of slavery, behaving as if it no longer exists in contemporary times. Yet it persists here in the USA and throughout the world. Workers in Bangladeshi clothing factories are dying in droves; immigrant produce pickers eke out a dangerous, impoverished existence; women and men are bought and sold to provide sex, etc.

It is incumbent upon us as tikkun olam strivers, repairers of the world, to join our voices with various efforts that are being made within the Jewish community, at least, to raise awareness about the extent of this problem and to advocate on behalf of those who are enslaved. T’ruah, formerly Rabbis for Human Rights of North America, is one group that is deeply engaged with this problem. Another option is Atzum, an Israeli based organization, which has been attempting to pass legislation to protect sex workers. A link to the legislation can be found here. Supporting Atzum is as simple as copying, pasting and emailing a letter every two weeks to an Israeli MP. It takes less than 2 minutes and is surely time well spent towards abolishing slavery.


Rabbi Judith Edelstein, D.Min, BCC is the part-time rabbi of Congregation Shirat HaYam in Nantucket, MA. She teaches at the JCC in Manhattan and works independently with private students for conversion, B’nai Mitzvah and other life cycle events.