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1102 East Lasalle Avenue
South Bend, IN, 46617
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(574) 234-8584

Sinai Synagogue – an integral part of the South Bend community since 1932.

Sinai Synagogue is a proud part of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, a dynamic blend of our inclusive, egalitarian approach and a commitment to Jewish tradition.


Shabbat Mishpatim - How to Make Sense of Slavery in the Torah

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, February 10, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland

I have been reading Eric Foner’s comprehensive history of the Reconstruction period in American history.  What led me to this was a biography of Ulysses S Grant and his frustrations as President to enact the promise of Reconstruction.  Soon after the end of the Civil War, Reconstruction permitted the same hierarchical power structure to remain in place from before the war.

This was partially due to entrenched racism and partially due to economics. 

The end of the Civil War and the Emancipation of black slaves led to an economic challenge:  How to create a new economy with free persons labor?  Many former slaves on principle refused to return to plantation work.  They wanted their own piece of land and to work for themselves.  But they sought to be subsistence farmers, living off their own land.  But the economy of the South, which was devastated after the war, had depended on cash crops like cotton and tobacco.  Northern textile mills depended on the continued development of the cotton crop as much as Southerners did.  What ensued over the next decades were active efforts to reinstate the older power structure in a way to replace the now formally illegal system of slavery.   Fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the life of African Americans was still constrained and dreadful, even in the North where race riots occurred repeatedly. 

And it seemed to me that our generation was living through a kind of parallel situation.  After the election of Barak Obama, I think many felt our nation had achieved a watershed moment:  Electing the first black president showed that America had marked a significant and positive change in its march toward real equality for all citizens.  However in many ways, Obama’s election led to an recognition of how deeply ingrained systemic racism was in our society.  The Black Lives Matter movement and prison reform efforts pointed to just how far short our society was in achieving true equality under the law.  And then a year ago this country elected the most openly racist president since perhaps reconstruction and the return to a certain prominence of white supremacist movements. 

The point is that while it is said that the arc of history bends toward justice, that movement is not smooth or direct at all.  There is progress and regression, progress and regression.  And eventually the move towards justice advances.

I mention this because of the odd juxtaposition between our Torah portion and the Haftarah on the subject of slavery and justice.

The Torah portion which is referred to as the Covenant code is one of several legal codes to be found in the Torah.  Strikingly, this code opens with laws about slavery.  Striking because the Israelites just ended hundreds of years of enslavement in Egypt, yet this legal code begins with rules about owning slaves.  Admittedly these laws put limitations on slave owning that the Israelites did not enjoy during their time in Egypt. 

There are different laws in Exodus regarding male and female slaves.

Regarding the male we learn:

When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment.  If he came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him.  If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone. But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life.

A male Hebrew slave is time limited to 6 years.  Why he is enslaved is not clear but from Deuteronomy and Leviticus laws about slavery we may speculate that he was sold to pay off debts.  Though Dr. Albert Friedberg suggests that Exodus refers to disenfranchised Israelites of low social standing who were enslaved to non Israelites and then purchased as slaves by Israelites.  In any case,  when his service is done he walks out empty handed.  However if his master married him to a female slave, the master keeps the slave woman and the children.  Such an arrangement according to Nahum Sarna as pointed out in our Etz Hayim Humashim must have been with non Israelite slaves.  The reason is because the next section of verses discusses female Israelite slaves.  The laws here indicate that an Israelite woman when sold into slavery, is sold under the rubric of a wife.    

“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are. If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he broke faith with her.  And if he designated her for his son, he shall deal with her as is the practice with free maidens.  If he marries another, he must not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment.”

These verses make clear that the woman has certain rights as a wife of either the master or the master’s son.  If he fails to treat her as a wife, she goes free, like the male slave empty-handed.

In Deuteronomy, the laws of slavery are again under discussion.  The laws in Deuteronomy come from a different code, known as the Deuteronomic code.  The focus in this code is on the exclusivity of God and they repeatedly refer to the Exodus from Egypt as motivations for the laws.  Here we see significant differences.

Male and female slaves are treated in the same manner.  The slave is not even called a slave.  He is referred to as “your brother”.  He or she leaves with a severance package because “you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.” There is no discussion of staying due to the slaves connection to a wife and children, because this practice of slave marriages has been ended?  Or perhaps it is understood that he would be able to leave with them.

It is not hard to read into this that the Torah is progressing on this issue.  In Exodus the laws seem harsher than in Deuteronomy.  But then we read our Haftarah. 

Our haftarah takes place in 588 BCE when the Babylonians are besieging the capital Jerusalem.  Jeremiah has prophesied that Jerusalem will fall.  King Zedekiah in an effort to forestall this event, calls on all slaves to be released in order to increase the national defense. Slave owners comply.  But once the immediate threat passes, they are forcibly enslaved again. 

Just as in the time of reconstruction, it is hard for a society to change and accept the demands of progress when those changes drastically threaten the cultural and societal norms the community has accepted and depended on.  That change comes about slowly.  2500 years ago our ancestors had difficulty conceiving of a society without slavery, even if they were able to place limitations on it which they considered to be more humane than their historical experience with slavery.  But their humanity was constrained by economic and cultural expectations.  Today we read these verses and ask, How could our ancestors condone slavery, especially when they suffered from it?  That alteration in cognition took centuries.

But even 2500 years ago Jeremiah was furious at the turn of events and preached to the people that when God liberated them from Egypt, God imposed laws of manumission for slaves. “But now you have turned back and have profaned My name; each of you has brought back the men and women whom you had given their freedom, and forced them to be your slaves again. Assuredly, thus said the Lord: You would not obey Me and proclaim a release, each to his kinsman and countryman. Lo! I proclaim your release — declares the Lord — to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine.. (34:16).

The message of Jeremiah and by choosing this as the complement to our Torah portion, the Sages likewise could not be more clear:  a life of holiness depends on fulfillment of the ethical demands of our covenant.   While cultural change may take time, our tradition’s demand on living an ethical life in which all human beings are understood to be created b’tzelem Elokim, and in which we are to treat each other in that way, comes from our earliest eras.  The prophets and our Sages showed us the way, it is up to us to fulfill it.