The Strange Laws Of Jewish Slavery
The Surprising Origins Of The Jewish Slavery Laws
Rabbi David Fohrman
In this week's parsha, we are given the commandments relating to a Jew having a Jewish slave. The Biblical slavery laws in Deuteronomy seem strange: we give gifts to our slaves? If they want to stay, we must pierce their ear? It can be difficult to relate to these kinds of ancient Hebrew slavery laws, which hardly seem relevant thousands of years later. How are we supposed to understand these weird Jewish laws of slavery in a modern context?
Rabbi Fohrman goes through these oddities to show us that the Bible is reminding us of our own national slavery in Egypt. In doing so, he uncovers a modern guide on how we should also let go of those who work with us, with grace and empathy.
I want to begin today with a question that seems to have nothing to do with our parsha but in fact, I think has everything to do with it.
Connecting Biblical Slavery Laws to Judaism's History of SlaveryGoing back to the brit bein habetarim, the covenant between the pieces, the moment when God tells Abraham in his nightmarish vision that his children are going to be enslaved for 400 years. God caps that with a very strange anticlimactic epilogue:
Yadoa teda ki-ger yihyeh zaracha be'eretz lo lahem,
You shall surely know that your children will be stranger in a land not their own,
vaavdum v'inu otam arba meot shanah,
they will there for 400 years, enslaved' and at the end,
v'gam et-hagoy asher yaavodu dan anochi,
the nation that enslaves them, I will judge,
v'acharei-chen yetzu birchush gadol,
and don't worry Abraham, they will leave with great wealth.
Don't worry Abraham, everything is good, 400 years of slavery but they are going to be rich when they leave. Don't know about you but if I was Abraham I wouldn't be very consult. Why does God even think that this is much of a consolation?
And while we are talking about this, let's go to the actual moment in biblical history, when this promise comes to fruition. As the Jews are actually leaving Egypt and God wants to make sure to give them that wealth, the Master of the universe sees to it, in what we might say is a very unusual way.
Here is the language of the text, at the burning bush, when God is telling Moshe how it is going to be when the Jews leave:
V'natati et-chen haam-hazeh be'einei mitzrayim,
I am going to give grace for the Jews in the eyes of the Egyptians,
v'hayah ki telechun lo telchu reikam,
and when they leave they shall not leave empty handed.
V'shaalah ishah mishchentah umigarat beytah klei-kesef uchlei zahav,
A woman is going to come and knock on the door of neighbor, the Egyptian, and she is going to ask to borrow cloths, golden vessels.
And the Egyptians are all going to happily give you these things and you will give them to your kids and you will take them out of Mitzrayim.
Now, what an odd way to make this happen. I mean if that's so important that the Jews will leave with great wealth, there are easier ways to accomplish this. God is actually already doing the 10 plagues. The ninth plague is the plague of darkness. The Jews can see everywhere, the Egyptians can't see a blasted thing. Perfect opportunity, just walk into the Egyptian's home and take whatever you like.
Why did God create a new miracle, a psychological miracle as it is, changing the minds of the Egyptian masters? Sure, you can have whatever you like, take this, happily. Such a strange way of doing things.
So, I would like to suggest a theory to you here and the theory is that these elements, of the escape from Egypt, are illuminated actually by a section of this week's parsha. This deals with when the Israelites will be free people in their land, how it is that they will interact with a servant that they may find in their own household.
References to Hebrew Slavery in DeuteronomyHere is what the text says:
Ki-yimacher lecha achicha haivri o haivriyah,
If you should find, one of your brothers, an Israelite, man or woman sold to you as a servant
va'avadcha shesh shanim,
they'll serve you for six years,
uvashanah hashevi'it teshalchenu chafshi meimach,
but in the seventh year you ought to let him go free.
Uchi-tishalchenu chafshi meimach lo teshalchenu rekam,
And when you send them free, do not send them empty handed.
Haaneik taanik lo metzoncha umigarencha umiyikvecha,
You should give them gifts, from your flocks, from your grain, from your wine,
asher berachecha Hashem Elokeicha,
the stuff that God has blessed you with' titen-lo,
you should give it to them,
you should remember, when you do this,
ki eved hayita be'eretz Mitzrayim,
that you, yourselves were the servants of the land of Egypt
vayifdecha Hashem Elokeicha,
and God redeemed you from there,
al-ken anochi metzavcha et-hadavar hazeh hayom,
that's why I command you to do this thing today.
Just stop right there for a moment because the language here is little bit odd. Based upon what we just read why is it that God commands you to give gifts to your servants? Is it because you should remember you were once a servant in Egypt or is it because God redeemed you from there?
You know I would have said that it is because you should remember that you were a servant. Therefore you should be nice to your own servants but that's not what the text says. The text says, you should remember you were a servant and God redeemed you from there and that's why I tell you to these things.
The text is cleanly emphasizing the fact that God redeemed you. Why is that the point? What is God taking me out of Egypt have to do with why it is that I have to give these gifts? Unless, the answer is that I am giving the gifts not just because I remember what it was like to be a servant but I remember what it was like to leave. How God redeemed me when I left.
The gifts are kind of redemption, a redemption that we experienced as slaves and a kind redemption that we are bidden to give to our own servants. Later on when the Israelites become a nation, when they let servants go free. There is a magic in these gifts.
Understanding the Weird Jewish Laws for Treament of SlavesWe keep on reading the text here, we will get to the core of that magic.
V'hayah ki-yomer eleicha lo etze meimach,
And it shall be that the servant will tell you, I don't want to leave you.
The six years are up but I love you
I love your household
ki-tov lo imach,
it's been good for him with you.
What should you do then?
You should take an awl,
v'natatah beazno uvadelet
and you should pierce his ear by the door,
v'hayah lecha eved olam,
By the way this procedure, right, this strange procedure of if a servant wants to stay with you, so you pierce his ear by the door; so if you pierce his ear by the door, what's left on the door – a little bit of blood, right? When is the last time we had blood on the door?
Connections to the Strange Slavery Laws in the BibleWhen God took us out of Egypt, there was blood on the door. That's how we left, we went through this door, here too, this individual servant has the same difficult choice to make. Will you leave or will you stay?
The choice revolves in ways around the Stockholm syndrome; the recognized proclivity of captives to develop bonds of sympathy towards their captors, do not want to go free, do not feel that they have the right to go free.
Ki-tov lo imach, 'He liked it with you.' Human beings are social animals, they form bonds with those around them. The servants are going to form bonds with you, with your family. He may well not want to leave. The Israelites also had a certain state of cold comfort level with life in Egypt. They had connections, albiet corrupt ones, with their masters.
You have to break that if you are going to leave. If you left, you went through the bloody door. Now this servant is given the choice to leave but if he wants, he can come back the other way through the bloody door, can come back and reclaim servitude.
But here is the strange thing, all of this talk about how the servant, he wants to stay, it's all a digression because we were talking about gift giving when you are letting the servant go and then you start talking about but the servant might want to stay.
The Meaning Behind the Bible's Slavery RulesSo, now what's going to happen? We are going to go back to letting the servants go and gift giving as if nothing happened? And lo yiksheh be'einecha beshalechcha oto chapshi meimcha, 'you know, when you are letting him go free after the six years, when you have given him these gifts, it shouldn't be so hard on your eyes when you are letting him go.'
You shouldn't be grudgingly letting him go. Ki mishneh sechar sachir ovadcha shesh shanim, 'He worked for you for a long time, double the time you would imagine a worker working for you and anyway, God is going to bless you, don't worry about sending him free.'
So what's going on here? The Torah is coming back to this idea of gift giving after this strange digression into the laws of rotzia, the procedure by which the servant can stay on. Want to make more sense to finish the idea of letting a servant go, when how you let him go with the end of six years and then get into the laws of how the servant could stay, why put that in the middle?
And even more so, listen to this ending here, lo yiksheh be'einecha, 'It shouldn't be hard on your eyes to letting him go'. The Torah is playing psychologist with you, why it has to say you have to be happy when you are giving him the gifts? Don't give him the gifts begrudgingly. Be happy, don't worry, it will be good with you.
Well, the Torah never does that. Torah doesn't say that put a mezuzah on the door, don't worry about the holes in your door though, the painter will come, he will fix the holes, anyway it's not such a big hole. No you don't get that, put a mezuzah on your door. Why is the psychology in here?
I want to suggest to you because the psychology is part of the mitzvah. The gift giving is only gift giving, if the gift is been given with a whole heart. You have to give the gifts happily or else they don't redeem the servant.
This is all about redemption, it is about breaking the Stockholm syndrome. It is all about making sure that he doesn't come back.
What the Bible Teaches Us About Treatment of SlavesThere is a part of a servant when they leave that has to break the comfortable status quo and leave it all behind for an uncomfortable freedom. Freedom is new, it is starting over. How do I break those bonds and gain the courage to start over?
There is only one person who can really help me do it, the master himself. The master needs to escort me out of servitude. If the master happily give me gifts, walks me one side of the great divide to the other; says, here, this is what you can use to start a new life, then I will feel that I am free.
God redeemed us when we came out of Egypt and therefore we are bidden to redeem our own servants when they leave servitude. Even the language is the same. Remember what God said at the burning bush, ki telechun lo telchu reikam, 'when you leave you are going to have these gifts'. The same words are echoed now with the Hebrew servant, v'chi-teshalchenu chafshi meimach, 'when you send him out', lo teshalchenu reikam, 'don't send him out empty handed', haanik taanik lo, 'give him these gifts, give the gifts happily'.
What Is the Bible Saying About Masters Owning Slaves?The Torah plays psychologist with the master. Helping him, smile as you are giving him these gifts not because we care about the psychology of the master, we care about what the gifts will mean to the servants and that too, goes back to Egypt.
God played psychologist there too. We didn't just go and take these gifts, there had to be the illusion at least, of the Egyptians happily giving them. You will go, you will ask them for this, v'natati et-chen haam-hazeh be'einei mitzrayim, and they will smile and they will say sure, you will have the sense that they are being given willingly, that they are walking you out of servitude.
It's the inoculation against wanting to go back, it's the redemption and that apparent digression in the middle of these laws, the part of it about how the servant says if it is good with you, I want to stay. It's not a digression, that's the whole point. The Stockholm syndrome is a reality, he is going to want to stay. The gifts are going to give him the courage to walk the right way through the bloody door, to leave you and to start a new life.
The Torah over and over again harks back to our experience in Egypt as a source of potential empathy that we can have, for those less fortunate than we are. Servitude in the Torah's eyes always comes to an end at some point and the question is then what? What is a master's obligation then?
The obligations between masters and servants that the Torah tells us do not end with a term of service. The fundamental greatness of the master comes when the master can help make the slave great too.