Mishpatim: Free the Slaves

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

One of the revolutions that Judaism brought to the world was its attitude towards, and its treatment of, slaves. Whereas in the ancient world slaves were considered to be no more than chattel, Judaism taught that slaves are to be accorded the same rights and privileges as their masters. 

Parshat Mishpatim, following immediately after the Divine revelation at Sinai, opens with the laws of slavery. On the heels of Sinai, the Torah’s concern is the treatment of the slave. The true measure of any society can be seen in its treatment of the "underclass”, and the Torah was not about to tolerate the treatment to which slaves were generally subject. 

The Talmud (Kiddushin 22a) teaches that one who acquires a slave is really acquiring a master for oneself. The slave must be given the same food and accommodation as his master. If there is only one bedroom with an ensuite it is the slave who gets to sleep there; and the slave, no less than his master, is not to work on Shabbat.

This change in the status of the slave is the message of the first of the Aseret HaDibrot. "I am the Lord your G-d, who brought you out of Egypt, from the home of slavery" (Shemot 20:2). Egypt was synonymous with slavery. Man, not G-d, was the controlling feature of people's lives. Freedom, our Sages assert, can be attained only by enslaving ourselves to G-d. “No one is free, save for one who occupies himself with Torah” (Avot 6:2). By serving G-d and only G-d, we free ourselves from the often-petty concerns that plague man. Impressing others, something that distorts our way of thinking and affects our actions, no longer concerns us. We have the higher goal of "impressing" G-d. 

Sefer Shemot details our transition from slaves of man to servants of G-d, from building cities for man to building a tabernacle for G-d. We have replaced ten plagues with Ten “Commandments”, and physical labour with spiritual strivings. 

As interpreted by our Sages, the slave described in the Torah is a thief who is sold into slavery in order to pay off his debts (Rashi 21:2). The years of slavery provide that thief an opportunity to discover that he can become a productive member of society, learning the value of work in a protective environment. It is to be hoped that after six years of this training, he is ready to take his rightful place in society. 

Unfortunately, man often prefers slavery to freedom. Freedom requires man to make choices, to think critically, to make distinctions and to take personal responsibility. Slavery creates and enforces dependence on others, a much easier though less meaningful existence. His master provides for the slave's needs, at times even providing him with a wife. With everything “taken care of”, it is no wonder the Torah tells us that many a slave had no desire to be free. "If the slave declares, ‘I am fond of my master, my wife and my children: I do not want to go free’, his master shall pierce his ear and he shall serve his master forever" (Shemot 21:5). For many, the security of relying on others is more appealing than the uncertainty that comes with independence.

For the most part, the Jewish people who left Egypt had been onlookers to the miraculous events in Egypt and at Sinai. In parshat Mishpatim, we begin the transition to a society in which man can no longer sit passively, but must take responsibility for his environment. Setting up a court system, a social welfare network, learning how to properly treat a spouse or strangers in our midst, taking responsibility for damages we may have caused are just some of tasks that the Torah demands we take on in the aftermath of Sinai. These are the tasks that enable the flourishing of a just and free society. May we merit living in a society suffused with Torah freedom.