Buddy Could You Spare a Dime?
One would think that after having been enslaved for 210 years, the last thing the Jewish people who had just left Egyptian servitude would want to hear about are laws concerning slavery. Parshat Mishpatim is filled with all sorts of civil laws covering murder, theft, damages, responsibility for borrowed objects and numerous other everyday matters. But headlining it all are the laws governing slavery.
Mishpatim is the first Torah portion to feature a significant number of commandments and it seems odd that God would have chosen precisely the topic of slavery to begin His first major introduction of mitzvot. Maybe give these folks a bit of a break and leave the painful issue aside for a while? You would think that if there were any nation that would appreciate the innate injustice of slavery, it would be those Israelites given their recent experience of the pain, suffering and injustice of it. So why have the institution of slavery at all?!
To gain an appreciation of this problem we need to know some basic facts about the Torah’s notion of slavery. The usual image that comes to mind of a white man beating a black man with whips is totally unfounded and forbidden from a Torah perspective. Indeed, the Torah clearly points out that if the master physically injures his slave, then the slave immediately wins his freedom.
Furthermore, the standard of living afforded the slave must be commensurate with other members of the household. The Talmud gives the example of a home with only one pillow and both master and slave wish to sleep with that pillow. The master must give the slave first dibs on it and sleep without one himself. Additionally, the Talmud states that the slave cannot be given degrading and demeaning work. Such laws prompt the Talmud to exclaim that one who purchases a slave, in truth, purchases a master.
Historically in Judaism when it existed, slavery was not a form of commerce where people would go looking for the less fortunate to purchase as cheap labor. Quite the opposite, it was seen as a means of assisting the less fortunate. Slavery was created in instances where a person was found guilty of theft and had no means to repay the victim for his wrong. What does society do with such a person? Throw him in jail so he can rot and learn about more heinous crimes from others there? Throw him out in the street becoming homeless, bouncing from one unwanted location to the next? What exactly do we do with those unfortunate individuals who somehow find themselves in a position of having no capital but themselves. and at the same time having a debt to pay?
So consider this – how about allowing him to work for and thereby repay the money that he owes to the person he stole from? By doing this, not only is justice being served, but the thief is being rehabilitated in the process. By living within a normative and respectful family environment, he gradually rebuilds his belief in himself. His self-esteem is reconstructed both from the knowledge that he has paid his debt and the fact that he is providing gainful and useful employment to another. It is the exact opposite perspective and environment of sticking him in a prison for his white-collar faux pas.
This is why Jewish law demands that he be treated, for all intents and purposes, as an equal. It’s also why Jewish law states that when he completes his servitude, his master (employer?) must give him a parting gift akin to severance pay consisting of things that the slave will be able to invest (seeds to plant, for example) so that he may get back on his feet financially and become a self-sufficient, independent and contributing member of society. As such, the slave is by no means an outcast in society, living from bench to bench, but merely someone in this temporary state to buy the necessary time for an opportunity to once again enjoy all the freedoms and pleasures of life that he once had.
The Torah begins Mishpatim – laws about creating a harmonious society – with slavery because it is asking us to have compassion on the most unfortunate individuals in our society. It is demanding from us a willingness to sacrifice for those who are in a difficult and precarious financial situation. This is but one of the many mitzvot where we are required to feel empathy for the less fortunate, but more importantly to take those feeling to the next level and translate them into concrete action.
It is these very expressions of tzedakah that have been the hallmark of the Jewish people since its inception, from the very first day they left Egypt. And so the Jewish take on slavery is a most fitting way to begin the first earnest list of mitzvot that appear in the Torah.
A healthy moral society cannot become so unless it starts with a basic compassion for those who are most in need of our assistance, coupled with a willingness to help those whose lives are not as fortunate as ours. Treating “servers” when we encounter them in any area of life with dignity and respect is the beginning of being part of God’s Chosen People and a Light Unto Nations.
They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway
They say there’s always magic in the air
But when you’re walkin’ down that street
And you ain’t had enough to eat
The glitter rubs right off and you’re nowhere…
’cause how ya gonna make some time
when all you got is one thin dime
and one thin dime won’t even shine your shoes
-The Drifters/George Benson