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Parshat Mishpatim

By: Mrs. Zahava Bitter

As we read through this week's parasha we are forced to face a difficult reality, the Torah seems to approve of slavery. Given our modern day sensitivities, it is difficult to understand how the Torah can allow for the Jewish people to dehumanize members of humanity by making them into their slaves. And yet, Parashat Mishpatim introduces two types of slaves, the Jewish slave and the Canaanite slave. How can we make sense of the Torah's approval of such immoral behavior?

When studying the laws that pertain to the Jewish slave it quickly becomes clear that this type of slave does not present a moral dilemma for our modern day minds. The Torah essentially abolishes the concept of slavery when it comes to the Jewish slave. As it says in this week's parasha (21:2), "If you should acquire an indentured Hebrew servant - he shall work for six years, and in the seventh year he shall go free, for nothing." The institution of a Jewish slave is essentially a six year contract with a worker who commits to remain loyal to his employer. This law logically follows G-d's statement to the Jewish people at Har Sinai, "I am the Lord your G-d Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery" (20:2). The exodus from Egypt meant an end of slavery within the Jewish nation. The Jewish people would only be servants to G-d from this point forward.

However, if there is such an aversion to slavery within the Jewish nation, one would think it would extend to mankind at large. Perhaps no man should ever be considered the slave of another man. To understand if this is so, we need to take a deeper look into the laws relating to a gentile slave.
Rav Elchanen Samet points out an oddity in the Torah's presentation of the Canaanite slave. There are three points where our parasha discusses this slave, but they are disjointed from one another.

The first occurrence is in verses 21:20-21:
"If a person should strike his slave or his maidservant with a staff, and he/she dies by his hand, he/she shall be avenged. But if the slave survives for a day or two, then he/she shall not be avenged, for he/she is his (the master's) property."

The second occurrence is five verses later (21:26-27):
"If a person strikes the eye of his slave or of his maidservant such that he/she is blinded, then he/she is to be freed on account of his/her eye. And if he causes the tooth of his slave or his maidservant to be knocked out, he shall send him/her free on account of his/her tooth."

The third occurrence, also after a gap of five verses (21:32), reads as follows:
"If the ox should gore a slave or maidservant, thirty shekalim of silver shall be given to the master, and the ox shall be stoned."

Why does the Torah choose to present the laws about the gentile slave in such a manner? If one takes note of the general structure of Parashat Mishpatim it is evident that that the parasha discusses the laws of damages in a very logical order. First, we are presented the laws of damages caused to man by another man. Next, we encounter the laws of damages caused to man by an animal. Following this, we are taught about damage caused to animals, produce and possessions. The list is explicitly prioritized according to what is most valued by a person. One would have expected for a slave to be listed as the first and most important of a person's possessions. Yet, the laws of damages caused to a slave are not to be found at that point in the list.

Rather, the laws concerning a gentile slave are interspersed among the laws relating to any other human being! The reason for this is loud and clear: G-d relates to all slaves as human beings and not as possessions, and He expects His nation to feel the same way. The Torah's allowance of slavery is by no means an encouragement of it. With a deeper analysis into the laws of a gentile slave, one finds that the Torah was looking to control, and maybe even ultimately abolish slavery in a world where slavery was the norm. (Rav Samet elaborates further on this topic, available at http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.63/18mishpatim.htm).

The sensitive laws relating to a slave are the ultimate expression of Bereshit 1:27 where we are told that G-d created man in the image of G-d. All man was created in the image of G-d, with the ultimate purpose of imitating Him. This is why the Torah teaches that if a person's body is damaged, whether of the free man or the slave, the offender will face consequences for restricting his victim's ability to function normally.

May we all take strength from the high moral standards of the Torah and the religion that we are part of, and allow it to drive us to reach higher in our service of G-d!