Why does this week’s Torah portion, which emphasizes civil and monetary law, begin with the sobering details of the Hebrew slave? The message is both a warning and an inspiration.
This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18), and in it we learn the bulk of Jewish civil and monetary law. Oddly enough, the first of these laws is about the procedures and treatment of a Jewish slave. As the Torah says: ”And these are the laws [mishpatim] that you shall set before them. If you buy a Hebrew slave, he will work for six years, and in the seventh year he will go out free” (Ex. 21:1-2).
What is a Hebrew slave? It refers to a Jew who becomes a slave either by selling himself because he is destitute or through being sold by the Jewish court as a punishment for stealing and being unable to repay what he stole. In the latter case, the Jewish court sells him for a six-year period, and the proceeds from the sale and his salary go to reimburse the victim of his theft.
The commentators ask: Why does the Torah portion that emphasizes civil and monetary law begin with the sobering details of the Hebrew slave?
One answer offered is that the freeing of the Hebrew slave after six years of servitude is meant to parallel and commemorate the Jewish people’s liberation from Egyptian bondage – the Exodus. Another explanation given is that the Jewish slave’s freedom commemorates the creation of the world. Just as God worked for six days and rested on the seventh, the Jewish slave works six years and “rests” in the seventh.
My friend Rabbi Ari Wasserman suggests that the laws of the Hebrew slave are given distinction in order to teach the importance of responsibly handling our financial affairs. Think about it: The life of the Jews in the desert was miraculous in every way, and they didn’t have to worry about financial matters! Everything was given to them. Food (fell from Heaven), water (Miriam’s well), clothes, housing. You name it. No one had to eke out a living for themselves or their families. This was all true in the desert, but once the Jews entered the Promised Land, they had to work for their livelihood.
The episode of the Hebrew slave highlights the responsibilities and dangers of money and making a living. One who doesn’t put in the necessary hours at the office, or worse, spends more than he or she earns, is headed for trouble. When people are down on their luck, they sometimes take to drastic measures, such as theft or selling their own freedom in order to survive.
One who purchases a slave is commanded by Torah law to treat him well – essentially, as a member of the family, and in some instances, even better than a member of the family! Although the slave’s dignity is preserved, it is still quite difficult and humiliating to be owned by another person.
The 40 years of wandering in the desert was a time in which we were groomed to become the ethical and role-model nation that we are. Although we are still dependent on God, no less than we were in the desert, life and making a living is certainly different. We must take the message of the Hebrew slave as both a warning and an inspiration to enjoy the fruits of our own labors, provide for our families and ensure responsible use of our money.
For more insights by Rabbi Ari Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below:
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