Insights into Exodus
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein
(February 21, 1998)
This week's issue was written by Rabbi Yosef Bart of
the Savannah Kollel.
The Torah which G-d gave us is eternal, and one of the greatest mistakes a Jew can make is
to deny its relevancy to our modern world. People often point to various laws or ideas
enunciated in the Torah and exclaim, "This doesn't relate to us today--it's outdated,
ancient!" Frequently troubling are those ideas or commands in the Torah which
seem, from our perspective, to be undemocratic or "unfair."
A typical example may be found in the very beginning of this week's Parsha. The first laws
detailed in this portion--which contains virtually the entire corpus of Torah
jurisprudence--are the laws pertaining to an "eved ivri," a Jewish servant. A
modern, secular individual is apt to slam the Torah closed with the cry, "Servitude?!
Our morality has advanced far beyond that!" Naturally, a more appropriate
response would be to examine who this "Jewish servant" is, how the Torah deals
with him, and what we may learn from it all.
As clarified in the Oral Law, there are only two conditions under which a Jew may become a
servant. 1. If a Jew steals, and is unable to make financial restitution, the Jewish court
may give him over to his victim as a servant, thereby "repaying" the theft. 2. A
Jew who is so completely destitute that he sees no way to support himself and his family
is permitted to sell himself as a servant.
Immediately, we see that the Torah law is far removed
from what "slavery" denotes to us. Here we have an individual who has
either chosen to become a servant, or a criminal who is simply paying (literally!) for his
crime...surely a softer sentence, and more meaningful experience, than prison!
And what are the conditions of this servitude? The Talmud explicates the numerous
obligations that the master has to the servant! If the master enjoys a high standard of
living, the servant must be allotted the same comforts. The master must provide sustenance
not only for the servant, but for his wife and children as well. In a particularly
striking example, if the master has but one pillow, the servant is entitled to it and the
master must do without! It isn't hyperbole when the Talmud states that one who acquires a
servant for himself is really as if he acquires a master! And, of course, the servitude is
forbidden to be permanent: the servant must be freed in the seventh year, unless he
chooses to remain until the Jubilee year.
In the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt'l:
"This is the one and only case in which the Torah orders a deprivation of freedom as
a punishment (we shall see that even this case is not to be looked at as a
punishment); and how does it order it? It orders the criminal to be brought
into the life of a family as we might order a refractory child to be brought under
the influence of Jewish family life; and with what precautions does it surround this
undertaking! How careful it is that the self-confidence of the criminal should not be
broken, that, in spite of the degradation he has brought on himself, he should still feel
himself considered and treated as a brother, capable of being loved and giving love! How
it insists that he may not be separated from his wife and family, and what care does it
take that his family should not be left in distress through his crime and its result. In
depriving him of his liberty, and thereby of the means to provide for his dependents, the
Torah puts the responsiblility of caring for them, on those who, for the duration of his
lack of freedom, have the benefit of his labours."
Let us note further: this is the very first commandment given in this portion! Is it not
striking that the Jewish servant is the first person to receive the attention of G-d's
legal system? What lesson can we learn from this?
I learned an answer to this from one of my teachers, Rabbi Michael Rosensweig of New York.
He explained that the true barometer of the integrity and morality of any legal system is
how it treats the lowest class in society. To deal justly with the upper echelons and
communal leaders is nothing special. But what about the poor and downtrodden? What of the
laborer who still slaves away for minimum wage? How do we treat those who haven't
"made it?" We are well aware of many ancient (and not so ancient) civilizations
which had one set of rules for the nobility, one for the commoners, a third and lowest for
(Sometimes a fourth for the Jews.) Our civilization is different. This may be a reason why
the Torah begins all discussion of Jewish "mishpat" (civil law) with the laws of
the Jewish servant.
This is hardly the only case where the Torah
demonstrates compassion and consideration for all, regardless of station. There is a story
about a great rabbi who heard that someone had treated a convert shamefully. The rabbi's
reaction was: "Perhaps that person had some sort of mental seizure and forgot that
the Torah in dozens of places exhorts us to treat a convert with special loving
Let us take this lesson to heart: to treat every Jew,
and every person, no matter how high he or she may "rank" in the eyes of
society, with the same respect and fairness that we would surely have when dealing with
the rich and famous. And let us recognize the simple truth: we have seen many forms of
legal systems and man-made codes throughout world history, but nothing can compete with
the morality, dignity and justice of G-d's Torah.
Divre Torah from Parshiyot in Genesis
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah
Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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