On one of my flights to Israel, I noticed in front of me a haredi boy, no more than 10 years old, intently reading parashat mishpatim. That image stuck with me, for there is nothing funny or fun in this parasha; no cool stories and mostly nothing really kids’ appropriate. He was somewhere between what happens if a pregnant woman finds herself in a fight – what if she gets hurt, what if the baby gets hurt, what happens if a man seduces a virgin and the laws regarding bestiality. Shortly, the kind of material most parents of a 10 year old would make sure he doesn’t get his hands on.
It made me realize something special about Jewish learning that I didn’t think about before then: The concept of ‘let’s put this out of the way till the kids grow up’, doesn’t exist. It can’t exist. As it says in Pirkei Avot (5:22), “turn it, turn it, everything is in it”. Everything is in our one book, all mixed together. I liked it. It felt messy; it felt real. We learn early on that joyful, painful, challenging, sad, ugly, funny, law and lore all co-exist in our life.
Parashat Mishpatim begins with the laws regarding a Hebrew slave. “If you acquire a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything . . .” (Exodus 21:1-6).
What a dramatic turn of events! After centuries in bondage with no end or hope in sight, slavery is no longer a permanent status. Now each and every person is entitled for freedom, and slavery, for the Hebrews, is a matter of choice or circumstances with a beginning and end. Further: both servant and master are now subject to the same explicit laws, known in advance, rather than the whim of a tyrant.
This is also the Torah’s way of telling us another important difference Sinai will make in our life: It isn’t about thunder and lightning and a “wow” performance of our God. It’s about the small details in life, and it’s going to have critical meaning everyone, from masters to slaves.
But wait. If we just received our freedom, why are we given laws regarding Hebrew slaves at all? Shouldn’t the text just say, ‘abolish slavery altogether’, ‘slavery is not allowed’, and be done with it?
The rabbis spent much time defining the specifics of the kind of slavery the Torah is talking about. It’s understood that the servant in this context was usually someone in debt who had to repay his overwhelming loan, as opposed to the image we have of slaves in the U.S. The laws likewise delt fairly with the servant’s wife and children, as well as an extreme situation when the servant decides not to go free, and remain a servant for life to his master.
But the bottom line is that, abolishing slavery altogether is not possible. In one way or another, even the most “free” among us, is always a servant to a “master” of one kind of another.
Rabbi Yehuda Halevi of the 12th century expressed it best in this succinct poem:
עבדי זמן עבדי עבדים הם
עבד ה’ הוא לבדו חופשי
על כך בבקש כל אנוש חלקו
חלקי עם ה’ אמרה נפשי
Servants of time-bound gods are servants to other slaves;
Only God’s servant, alone is free.
When each sought his share,
My share is Hashem’s, my soul said to me.
Accordingly, the only question we face in life is not whether to be “slaves” or “free” in the deepest sense of these words, but who do we worship. At any given moment, we always hold something on high. What is it that influences our core beliefs? That makes us do something that goes above and beyond? What is it that demands sacrifices from us? What do we offer for what?
The further we have gotten away from ancient idolatry, the more subtle our gods have become. They are often invisible and in and of themselves, not bad, like beauty, youth, power, love or education. The challenge arises when we compromise our core values for them, and when these gods demand sacrifices, hurt who we are, and interfere in our relationship with the One God we were introduce to at Sinai.
Our tradition asks us to remember our time in Egypt in each holiday, each Shabbat, each prayer, each meal. The journey from slavery to freedom informs our whole experience. But it’s not only a national-historical story. It also touches on the individual, spiritual daily-work we are called to apply to our life here and now.