Sign In Forgot Password

Slavery in the toraH #766

02/17/2023 05:45:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Mishpatim: 

"When you acquire an Israelite debt servant, that person shall serve six years—and shall go free in the seventh year, without payment.” (Exodus 21:2).

Slavery in the Torah

I am privileged to be a member of an extended family with roots in rural Kentucky, just west of the West Virginia border.

Traditionally, on most Memorial Day weekends, we travel to this scenic area of Appalachia and participate in an annual potluck picnic.

I look forward to this time to catch up and to play country music with family members. 

The event also provides me with an opportunity to break bread with those who reside in the Bible belt, and exchange religious and political points of view.

I cherish our unique coming together of ideas.

While we usually engage in respectful and good-natured conversations about God, the Messiah and the hereafter, on one occasion a question froze me in my tracks.

“Rabbi, it is written in the Bible that the Jews had slaves, so was it okay for Blacks to be enslaved in the south?”

I kept a straight face, but inside my stomach churned. I began to explain that the term “slave” used in many biblical translations is not completely accurate.

In last week’s Torah portion, we witnessed the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. 

And in this week’s portion, Mishpatim (rules), we delve into details, as the Torah lays out 53 of Judaism’s 613 mitzvoth (commandments).

They range from welcoming the stranger, to feeding those in need, repairing broken relationships, and providing restitution to those whom we have harmed or injured.

And—true to the question posed to me at the picnic—this week’s parashah also refers to Israelites whose freedom has been restricted. It sets down a series of laws and practices, dealing with Israelite slaves who work for other Israelites.

But wait. How is it possible that only after a few months of being liberated from Egyptian slavery, the Torah is speaking about Israelite slaves—this time performing work for other Israelites?

The answer is contained in the word “eved”—”slave,” which is ambiguous.

It is connected to the word “avodah,” which means “work.” What kind of work? That is contained in the context.

At the Passover table, we remind ourselves that "avadim hayinu"—”We were once slaves under Pharaoh in Egypt.”

But that is not what the Torah is talking about.

In ancient times, one did not go to the bank to secure a loan. Someone would approach a third-party.

If that someone could not pay back the loan, it was common for the debtor to serve as an “Israelite debt servant” (eved ivri) until the amount was paid off.

But human dignity had to be included in the equation.

This week’s Torah portion notes that after six years, even if the debt has not been paid off, the debt servant and his family are to be released from obligation. Indeed, no family should be forever indebted to another.

In addition, the Torah instructs that the eved ivri shall not work on the Sabbath; one may not degrade the worker’s dignity. 

The Etz Chaim bible commentary notes:

This Torah portion “deals with people who find themselves obliged to sell their labor for a fixed time to repay a debt or as a result of bankruptcy.”

The idea of the “Israelite debt servant” is an outdated concept lost in ancient culture. But even within a system which we find detestable today, the Torah attempts to support respect.

So, as we examine contemporary culture, can we make a case that there exists a common thread between Biblical times and now?

According to the New York Federal Reserve, in 2021, Americans held about $14.6 trillion in consumer debt, including mortgages, student and auto loans, and credit cards.

How many are forced to take second or third jobs in order to pay their bills or retire their debts. How much personal freedom is lost?

Rabbi Mary Zamore once reflected, “For many, debt has become an inescapable trap, a form of bondage.”

A recent New York Times article reported that “more than 43 million American borrowers hold over $1.6 trillion in student loans, a sum that has more than tripled in 13 years.”

How many young people are reluctant to enter college because they fear being enslaved by a lifetime of student loan payments? It’s a vicious cycle which perpetuates inequality.

Loss of freedom—however softened by the Torah—is as objectionable today as it was in ancient times. But to be clear, the eved referred to in this week’s parashah is a far cry from those enslaved in Egypt or in the American south.

Ever more reason to take care in our Torah translations. Whereas there are 8,769 unique Hebrew words in the Torah, modern English uses more than 300,000.

It has become easy for some to misinterpret or manipulate Biblical words to promote their own agenda. In Hebrew, context is everything.

Indeed, we as Jews, detest the loss of freedom and have—since the time of Egypt—served as guardians of justice and freedom throughout the world.

Let us therefore be inspired by the words of the Torah to help create a more just society, one in which Americans can break free from the bondage of poverty and debt.

On that Memorial Day, following our conversation, the relative who posed the question paused for moment, and simply said, “Thank you for explaining it. I understand it now.”

He often emails me to inquire about the meaning of a particular Biblical word.

It is a particularly meaningful form of communication for me. Indeed, these divisive times call on all of us to apply the antidote of conversation, education and respect to all of our interactions. 

In spite of recounting an archaic form of debt forgiveness, this week’s Torah portion embraces a higher principle which places human dignity above all.

It reminds us that we are ultimately indebted to God for the gift of life, and not a human master.

Let us be inspired by this week’s Torah portion to create a society where in order to merely survive, or receive an education, no one is enslaved.

Rather let us edge towards the precious value of freedom, as we create a more equitable and fairer society for all.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Tue, November 28 2023 15 Kislev 5784