The Slow End of Slavery

In parshat Mishpatim we witness one of the great stylistic features of the Torah, its transition from narrative to law. Until now the book of Exodus has been primarily narrative: the story of the enslavement of the Israelites and their journey to freedom. Now comes detailed legislation, the “constitution of liberty.”

This is not accidental but essential. In Judaism, law grows out of the historical experience of the people. Egypt was the Jewish people’s school of the soul; memory was its ongoing seminar in the art and craft of freedom. It taught them what it felt like to be on the wrong side of power. “You know what it feels like to be a stranger,” says a resonant phrase in this week’s parsha (23: 9). Jews were the people commanded never to forget the bitter taste of slavery so that they would never take freedom for granted. Those who do so, eventually lose it.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the opening of today’s parsha. We have been reading about the Israelites’ historic experience of slavery. So the social legislation of Mishpatim begins with slavery. What is fascinating is not only what it says but what it doesn’t say.

It doesn’t say: abolish slavery. Surely it should have done. Is that not the whole point of the story thus far? Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. He, as the Egyptian viceroy Tzofenat Paneach, threatens them with slavery. Generations later, when a pharaoh arises who “knew not Joseph,” the entire Israelite people become Egypt’s slaves. Slavery, like vengeance, is a vicious circle that has no natural end. Why not, then, give it a supernatural end? Why did God not say: There shall be no more slavery?

The Torah has already given us an implicit answer. Change is possible in human nature but it takes time: time on a vast scale, centuries, even millennia. There is little doubt that in terms of the Torah’s value system the exercise of power by one person over another, without their consent, is a fundamental assault against human dignity. This is not just true of the relationship between master and slave. It is even true, according to many classic Jewish commentators, of the relationship between king and subjects, rulers and ruled. According to the sages it is even true of the relationship between God and human beings. The Talmud says that if God really did coerce the Jewish people to accept the Torah by “suspending the mountain over their heads” (Shabbat 88a) that would constitute an objection to the very terms of the covenant itself. We are God’s avadim, servants, only because our ancestors freely chose to be (see Joshua 24, where Joshua offers the people freedom, if they so chose, to walk away from the covenant then and there).

So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of God’s relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do so of our own free will. So Mishpatim does not abolish slavery but it sets in motion a series of fundamental laws that will lead people, albeit at their own pace, to abolish it of their own accord. Here are the laws:

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything . . . But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life. (Ex. 21: 2-6)

What is being done in these laws? First, a fundamental change is taking place in the nature of slavery. No longer is it a permanent status; it is a temporary condition. A Hebrew slave goes free after seven years. He or she knows this. Liberty awaits the slave not at the whim of the master but by divine command. When you know that within a fixed time you are going to be free, you may be a slave in body but in your own mind you are a free human being who has temporarily lost his or her liberty. That in itself is revolutionary.

This alone, though, was not enough. Six years are a long time. Hence the institution of Shabbat, ordained so that one day in seven a slave could breathe free air: no one could command him to work:

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you . . . nor your male or female servant . . . so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (Deut. 5: 12-14)

But the Torah is acutely aware that not every slave wants liberty. This too emerges out of Israelite history. More than once in the wilderness the Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt. They say: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” (Num. 11: 5). As Rashi points out, the phrase “at no cost” [chinam] cannot be understood literally. They paid for it with their labour and their lives. “At no cost” means “free of mitzvot,” of commands, obligations, duties. Freedom carries a highest price, namely, moral responsibility. Many people have shown what Erich Fromm called “fear of freedom.” Rousseau spoke of “forcing people to be free” – a view that led in time to the reign of terror following the French revolution.

The Torah does not force people to be free but it does insist on a ritual of stigmatization. If a slave refuses to go free, his master “shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl.” Rashi explains:

Why was the ear chosen to be pierced rather than all the other limbs of the body? Said Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai: …The ear that heard on Mount Sinai: “For to Me are the children of Israel servants” and he, nevertheless, went ahead and acquired a master for himself, should [have his ear] pierced! Rabbi Shimon expounded this verse in a beautiful manner: Why are the door and the doorpost different from other objects of the house? G-d, in effect, said: “The door and doorpost were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel and the two doorposts, and I said: ‘For to me are the children of Israel servants’ ” —they are My servants, not servants of servants, and this person went ahead and acquired a master for himself, he shall [have his ear] pierced in their presence.

A slave may stay a slave but not without being reminded that this is not what God wants for His people. The result of these laws was to create a dynamic that would in the end lead to an abolition of slavery, at a time of free human choosing.

And so it happened. The Quakers, Methodists and Evangelicals, most famous among them William Wilberforce, who led the campaign in Britain to abolish the slave trade were driven by religious conviction, inspired not least by the biblical narrative of the Exodus, and by the challenge of Isaiah “to proclaim freedom for captives and for prisoners, release from darkness” (Is. 61: 1).

Slavery was abolished in the United States only after a civil war, and there were those who cited the Bible in defence of slavery. As Abraham Lincoln put it in his second Inaugural: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

Yet slavery was abolished in the United States, not least because of the affirmation in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” and are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, among them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson, who wrote those words, was himself a slave-owner. Yet such is the latent power of ideals that eventually people see that by insisting on their right to freedom and dignity while denying it to others, they are living a contradiction. That is when change takes place, and it takes time.

If history tells us anything it is that God has patience, though it is often sorely tried. He wanted slavery abolished but he wanted it to be done by free human beings coming to see of their own accord the evil it is and the evil it does. The God of history, who taught us to study history, had faith that eventually we would learn the lesson of history: that freedom is indivisible. We must grant freedom to others if we truly seek it for ourselves.