February 2020 – Parshat Mishpatim

As the smoke and thunder are slowly dissipating and fading away after the monumental events of ‘Matan Torah’, we begin this week’s Parsha with a change in the narrative of the Torah, switching from stories and tales to more laws and commandments.

Surprisingly though, this new biblical chapter opens with the laws regarding the seemingly obscure case of acquiring and employing a Hebrew slave (an ‘Eved Ivrei’).

Why is such a unique and peculiar mitzvah brought as the ’11th Commandment’ following the major events at Mount Sinai?

Furthermore, at that point in time in antiquity no slaves existed amongst the recently emancipated Israelites. It also seems an irrelevant case in our contemporary age in which slavery is forbidden.

In order to answer, we must first explain the Torah definition of ‘slavery’.

Despite such a word usually invoking evil or maltreatment – an ‘Eved Ivrei’ is no mere vessel to his master.

The Torah mandates that it is prohibited to strike or abuse one’s slave, and he must be treated honorably to such an extent that the provisions of the slave take precedent before the master.

Additionally it is prohibited to acquire an ‘eved’ through war or kidnapping, but rather he is an individual who has fallen in debt, committed a crime or made financial decision to subjugate himself.

Thus, the Torah is opening with a lesson regarding the equality and sanctity of life – a lesson that is to be reverberated and echoed throughout the course of the Bible.

Only moments before the events of this week’s Parsha, every single Hebrew heard from G-d with a resounding boom “I am the Lord Your G-d!” and “Do not steal!”. In spite of this, a slave-to-be has made a mistake/s by going against G-d’s commandments and is thus being punished for committing a crime. He also may willingly subject himself to being a slave for other reasons.

Presumably in dealing with such an individual the Torah would have nothing but scorn or contempt for him. Yet to the contrary, the Torah dictates that we must treat this person with nothing less than honour and respect.

Hence this mitzvah is brought directly after ‘Matan Torah’ because it lies at the very core and inner meaning of the Five Books of Moses.

No individual is deemed innately higher or better than the other – all are equal in the eyes of G-d. Even an ‘Eved’ must be treated accordingly.

This applies not only to people of various walks of life and backgrounds, but also to both men and women. As we progress in the reading of the Torah and the listing of various mitzvot dictated separately to both genders, G-d is detailing the role of each to accomplish, but not (heaven forbid) in a hierarchy.

To quote Jewish Supreme Court Judge and ardent feminist Ruth Bader Ginsburg AKA ‘The Notorious RBG’!:

“I don’t say women’s rights—I say the constitutional principle of the equal citizenship stature of men and women.”