A mitzvah to keep slaves If you know when to free them

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Exodus 21:1-24:18

Jeremiah 34:8-22, 33:25-26

“V’eileh hamishpatim … ” “And these are the laws … ” Not an overly catchy beginning to a Torah reading. And, the text goes downhill from there, listing mitzvah after mitzvah that cover panoply of laws, from kidnapping to property damage to idolatry.

Makes me long for the good ol’ days — like last week. Now that was a Torah reading! A mountain aflame. God’s voice booming down. The earth shaking. It is no wonder the movie “The Ten Commandments” ends at Mount Sinai and does not even try to film this week’s material.

Yet our tradition asserts that this week’s reading is a direct continuation of last week’s grand narrative. Our sages teach (Shemot Rabbah 1:2) that anytime the Torah begins a paragraph with the word “eileh” — “these” — it signifies that there is no conceptual linkage of the material now being presented to what came immediately before. On the contrary, the new material is brought in contrast to the proceeding verses.

Anytime, however, a paragraph begins (as our parshah does) with “v’eileh” — “and these” — it means the Torah is presenting a continuation of what came before.

Considering this midrashic teaching, what is the content of the beginning verses of Parashat Mishpatim? What deep law carries on the incredible miracles of Sinai that came so shortly before? “These are the laws you will set before them: When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years. In the seventh year, he shall go free, without payment” (Ex. 21:1-1).

The first subject legislated is the institution of slavery! It is an irony that is hard to miss — or shake off. The Israelites, just liberated from slavery, begin their code of justice by assuming and accepting a system of slave ownership — of their fellow Hebrews, no less.

How can we even justify such a mitzvah, let alone align it with the first of the just-given Ten Commandments? “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” directly commands or at least implies: serve no one other than God!

Hebrew slaves only became servants due to extreme monetary difficulty, indenturing themselves to another Israelite in order to work off their obligations. The servitude was supposed to be limited: no longer than seven years, because God is the only master a Jew is supposed to serve.

Any Israelite choosing to remain enslaved wore a visible sign, a pierced ear, of his refusal to accept his God-given gift of freedom.

The biblical institution of slavery — or at least the regulation of the slave owner — brings into effect a parallel to the first commandment. An Israelite whose brother has come under his control as a slave is now in a unique position. He can imitate God’s act, reiterated to us in the Ten Commandments, of bringing another out of slavery.

In the talmudic tractate of Sotah (14a), Rabbi Hama says in the name of Rabbi Hanina: What does it mean “to follow Adonai your God” (Deut. 13:5)? The answer is that the verse means to teach us that we should follow the attributes of the Holy One — in clothing the naked, visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved. Rabbi Hanina could also have added, “in freeing the slave.”

Yes, there are circumstances that may lead to servitude, but an Israelite is then to let his indentured neighbor go free. He is to act imitatio Dei in this, too.

Parashat Mishpatim makes the Israelites active participants in the moment of Sinai. It was awesome and amazing to stand before God and the pyrotechnic display. Yet the memory of that event can dim over time.

Parashat Mishpatim teaches that it is through our actions that we live out the Sinai story and we live out our understanding of our connection to God. “And these are the laws” that make Sinai always real.

May that understanding be one that continues to allow us to connect to our grand narratives, bring further freedom to the world, and bring holiness and Godliness to our lives.

Rabbi Michelle Fisher is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.