Exodus 21:1-24:18; 30:11-16
I like to think of Mishpatim as "the morning after." WhatI mean by that is simple. Last week's portion concluded with the dramatic revelation of the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai. It's a tough act to follow, but something had to happen next, and that's the subject of Mishpatim, which means "laws."
You probably already know this, but there are far more than 10 commandments in the Torah. The great scholar Maimonides counted no fewer than 613. So what is the 11th commandment, or the 12th? The answer may surprise you. Mishpatim begins with: "These are the laws that you shall set before them: When you acquire a Hebrew slave … "
The 11th commandment is all about how to treat a slave. So are the 12th and 13th, all the way to the 19th commandment. In other words, just as the Decalogue begins by referencing Israel's enslavement by Egypt, so, too, the legal code that follows begins with laws that govern Israelites enslaved to other Israelites.
If you find this troubling – and I hope that you do – then you may want to keep on reading. On the surface, this seems not only morally repugnant but in contradiction with a cornerstone teaching of Judaism: Treat others fairly and with respect. How is it, then, that the Torah could have any laws for holding slaves, Hebrew or otherwise, let alone place such laws right after the Ten Commandments?
I have a theory: It makes sense to begin with laws about slavery, because what else did we know? Part of the genius of the Torah is that it meets us where we are. After hundreds of years of slavery, could we imagine a world without it? Probably not.
So here's what the commandment dictates: The slavery of Egypt will not exist in Israel. Instead, should an Israelite find themselves in debt to the extent that they have to "sell themselves," the term of payment will be fixed at six years. On the seventh year, they will go free.
In other words, we will allow for slavery, except it's not really slavery, but indentured servitude. As for the rest of the commandments about slavery, they detail the rights of slaves and responsibilities of their "owners."
Many of these rights apply to all slaves, not just Israelites. For example, later on in the portion are commandments that protect the lives and well-being of any slave. If a master kills a slave, then the master's life is forfeit. If a master mutilates a slave, for instance, by damaging his eye or knocking out a tooth, then the slave must be set free.
These laws are nothing less than spectacular in scope. Acknowledging that we were not yet ready to give up slavery as an institution, the Torah says, "You want slaves? No problem. Just follow these simple rules."
But read the fine print, and another story emerges – one in which slavery is limited to such an extent that it ceases to exist in anything but name only. Taken together, the laws about slavery combine human rights for all slaves with market disincentives for slave owners to make this industry more obsolete over time.
I imagine that the first generation of Israelites was more willing to "enslave" each other than later generations. But being required to treat their slaves with respect, over time forced them to confront their "property" as human beings, thus making slavery less palatable.
In fact, the repetition of the 11th commandment in Deuteronomy acknowledges this change, albeit quietly. The law begins, "When you acquire a Hebrew slave … ." However, as written 40 years later, it reads, "If your brother is sold to you … ." It's all a matter of perspective, but perspective matters a lot.
Rabbi Gary Pokras serves Temple Judea of Bucks County in Doylestown.