Yom Sheini, 22 Iyyar 5779
Monday, 27 May 2019
Parashat Mishpatim 2014

Parashat Mishpatim
Rabbi Alexandra Wright
24th January 2014

Why does the Book of the Covenant which forms this week’s sedra begin with the laws of slavery?· Why not begin with the more fundamental life and death rules – capital crimes?· No other law collections from the ancient Near East open with this topic.

The answer is partly that the Aseret Dibrot (Ten Utterances or Ten Commandments) of the previous week’s sedra gives these major laws as headlines, although the details of the execution of justice still need to be worked out.

But the other part of the response to this question is that the laws of slavery are connected with the chronology of the Torah’s narrative in Exodus.·· We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, says the Haggadah.· Slavery marks the beginning of the story of the Israelites as a people.· It is not a good place to begin; it is not a model for creating a just and healthy society, it is a paradigm that must be overturned.· Centuries of servitude have conditioned the Hebrew slaves.·· Even after their liberation from slavery in Egypt, they remain emotionally and spiritually in slavery.· Our Pesach Haggadah quotes the lines from John Byron’s “The Prisoner of Chillon”:

“My very chains and I grew friends,

So much a long communion tends

To make us what we are – even I

Regain’d my freedom with a sigh.”

This very first law of our sedra: Ki tikneh eved ivri, – “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment”, needs to be read in relation to the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Eternal One your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (20.2).· From the biblical point of view, there is an inextricable link between the nature of the relationship between the liberator God and Israel (the people) and between the individual serf-holder - the agent of liberation and the slave.·· In the same way as the Torah protects the rights of the stranger, so too it is deeply sensitive to the rights of the slave.· That is why Jeremiah, in the Haftarah condemns the conduct of his fellow Jews inJerusalem, who have reneged on the liberation of their slaves.

The liberation of slaves, along with the redemption of Jewish captives (pidyon sh’vuyim) was considered one of the most important of religious duties in Jewish law.· That is why when we hear of contemporary stories of trafficking and slavery – women, men or children who are held against their will, deprived of the basic human right of freedom – we are shocked.· Freedom is a fundamental principle of a healthy and just society.· Slavery marks out a society as backward and depraved.

And that is why Liberal Jews must remain active in working for justice and freedom in our own and all societies.· No one should be deprived of their freedom to think, to speak, to learn, to love, to hope and to rejoice.