After the Exodus and the Revelation of the Aseret HaDibrot (Decalogue), the Torah begins to delineate the basic laws of a civilized society:
And these are the judgments (mishpatim) that you shall place before them (Shemot 21:1).
Justifiably, we would expect the first of these 53 mitzvot to set the tone for the parasha, and, by extension, for the entire realm of mitzvot bein adam l'chaviero, commandments that affect the relations between people. And yet, out of all possible opening mitzvot, the Torah selects the laws of the Hebrew slave:
If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years shall he serve, and in the seventh shall he go out free, for nothing . . . (verses 2-6).
Rashi explains that these verses refer to one who had been sold into servitude by the court because he had stolen something and was unable to repay his debt.
Beginning with this mitzvah is surprising for a few reasons. Since it establishes the basis for the Torah’s civil law, we might have expected the Torah to begin – as the Shulchan Aruch begins its section of civil law, Choshen Mishpat – with the appointment of judges and the establishment of the court system. Furthermore, the sufferings the Children of Israel had experienced during their own enslavement are still fresh in their memories; the last thing on their minds is the expectation that they may one day enslave each other!
The Ramban explains that the mitzvah of the Hebrew slave is first among the mishpatim in the same way that Hashem opens the Decalogue with "I am Hashem your G-d Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves" (Shemot 20:2), connecting collective direct experience with the mitzvah to know that Hashem exists. When the mitzvah to free Hebrew slaves after six years is reiterated in Devarim, this connection is made explicitly:
And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Hashem, your G-d redeemed you, therefore I command you about this matter today (Devarim 15:15).
A reminder of the Jewish people’s own slavery is fundamental to their knowledge of Hashem.
The Keli Yakar (R. Shlomo Ephraim Lunshitz, 1550-1619) develops this idea along ethical lines. In his view, the message of this mitzvah is to teach the Jewish people to be compassionate: You, too, were slaves, and your slavery, was also the result of an act of theft, namely the kidnapping of Yoseph from his home. Hashem had compassion for your plight and He redeemed you. Therefore, you must imitate Hashem’s compassion by redeeming your fellow Jew who has been sold to you as a servant.
similar approach is to be found in the Sefer Ha'Chinuch
(ascribed to R. Aharon HaLevi of Barcelona, mid-13th
Century). Compassion is one of
the hallmarks of the Jewish people; they are called “the compassionate ones,
children of the compassionate” (Yevamot 79a; Beitzah 32b).
Thus, one who does not treat a slave as the Torah instructs “would
practically attest about himself that he is not of the Children of Israel.”
The Chinuch goes one step further by emphasizing that the true
test of one’s kindness is precisely in one’s relations with those who are
powerless to protect themselves. The
slave – especially one who is a convicted criminal – is the paradigm of
the defenseless. This ethical
guideline – to utilize our national memory of servitude in order to teach us
compassion for others, particularly the weak – is echoed elsewhere in
MISHPATIM, in the mitzvah not to verbally abuse a convert:
And you know the
soul (feelings) of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Shemot 23:9).
this way, the Keli Yakar and the Chinuch challenge the
assumption that former slaves could not imagine themselves as masters.
Quite the contrary. Psychology
teaches us about the defense mechanism called displacement, such as
when a child is taunted by another, bigger and stronger child.
Since he cannot vent his frustrations and retaliate against his
tormentor, he hits a child smaller than himself. Similarly, when erstwhile slaves find themselves in the
position of being slave-owners, they might release their pent-up aggressions
against their oppressors and displace it towards their own servants.
The Torah comes to teach the Children of Israel to rise above these
impulses and to sympathize, because "you know the soul of the
If we carry this idea to its conclusion, we might say, as the Mechilta of R. Shimon bar-Yochai asserts, that the goal of the enslavement and redemption from Egypt was to teach the Children of Israel the centrality of compassion, which can only happen when we transcend our baser instincts. In this manner, the Jewish people can become a role model to mankind, demonstrating that kindness should become the basis of every society, and that it is Hashem’s compassion that maintains the world: Hashem is good to all, and His compassionate acts are over all His works (Tehillim 145:9).
These are important ideals, to which many civilized societies pay lip-service, and are only actualized when the ideal is put into practice. By anticipating the time when slaves become masters, the Torah makes it possible to translate these ideals into actions.