Torah | Even the most free among us serves some sort of master

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.


Exodus 21:1-24:18

Shabbat Shekalim Maftir: Exodus 30:11-16

Haftarah: II Kings 12:1-17

On one of my flights to Israel, I noticed in front of me a haredi boy, no more than 10 years old, intently reading Parashat Mishpatim. That image stuck with me, for there is nothing funny or fun in this parashah. Mishpatim is about what happens if a pregnant woman gets hurt in a fight, what if the baby gets hurt, what happens if a man seduces a virgin, and it covers the laws regarding bestiality. It’s the kind of material most parents of a 10-year-old would make sure he doesn’t get his hands on.

It made me realize something about Jewish learning: The concept of ‘Let’s put this out of the way till the kids grow up’ doesn’t exist. It can’t exist. As it says in Pirkei Avot (5:22): “Turn it, turn it, everything is in it.” Everything is in our one book, all mixed together. It’s messy. It’s real. We learn early on that law and lore — joyful, painful, challenging, sad, ugly and funny — all co-exist in our life.

Parashat Mishpatim begins with the laws regarding a Hebrew slave. “If you acquire a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything” (Exodus 21:2).

What a dramatic turn of events! After centuries of bondage with no end or hope in sight, slavery is no longer a permanent status. Now each and every person is entitled to freedom, and slavery, for the Hebrews, is a matter of choice or circumstance, with a beginning and end. Further: Both servant and master are now subject to the same explicit laws, known in advance, rather than the whim of a tyrant.

This is also the Torah’s way of telling us another difference Sinai will make in our life: It isn’t about thunder and lightning and a “wow” performance of our God. It’s about the small details in life, and it’s going to have critical meaning for everyone, from masters to slaves.

But wait. If we just received our freedom, why are we given laws regarding Hebrew slaves at all? Shouldn’t the text just say, “Abolish slavery altogether” and be done with it?

The rabbis spent much time defining the kind of slavery referred to in the Torah. It’s understood that the slave in this context was usually someone who had to pay off an overwhelming debt by serving as a bondsman, as opposed to lifelong, hereditary slavery as it existed in the United States. The laws also dealt fairly with the servant’s wife and children, as well as the extreme situation of when the servant decides not to go free, and remain a servant for life to his master.

But the bottom line is that abolishing slavery altogether was not possible, because in one way or another, even the most free among us is always a servant to a master of one kind or another.

The 12th-century Rabbi Yehuda Halevi expressed it best in this poem:

Servants of time-bound gods are servants to other slaves,

Only God’s servant, alone, is free.

When each sought his share,

My share is Hashem’s, my soul said to me.

Accordingly, the only question we face in life is not whether to be “slaves” or “free” in the deepest sense of these words, but whom do we worship. At any given moment, we always hold something on high. What is it that influences our core beliefs? What makes us do something that goes above and beyond? What is it that demands sacrifices from us? What do we offer for what?

The further we have moved away from ancient idolatry, the more subtle our gods have become. They are often invisible and not bad, in and of themselves — such as beauty, youth, power, love or education. The challenge arises when we compromise our core values for them, and when these “gods” demand sacrifices, hurt who we are and interfere in our relationship with the one God we were introduced to at Sinai.

Our tradition asks us to remember our time in Egypt in each holiday, each Shabbat, each prayer, each meal. The journey from slavery to freedom informs our whole experience. But it’s not only a national-historical story. It also touches on the individual, spiritual daily work we are called to apply to our life here and now.

Michal Kohane
is the director of the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. She has served in leadership roles throughout Northern California and holds advanced degrees in studies of Israel, psychology and education. She can be reached at [email protected].