Our Parsha asks one of the most complex questions within the Torah narrative,
Having freed the Israelites from slavery and delivered them from Egypt – we find, rather than the total outright rejection of slavery as immoral, a system of laws that govern and permit slavery.
How can it be that the God who redeems slaves can institute laws of slavery we ask – and it is an essential question:
Torah has already begun to shift from our cultural and ancestral narrative to laws – our Parsha itself containing 53 separate laws (23 positive and 30 negative according to the Sefer HaHinnuch) many of them are recognisable in modern civil legislation as we understand it today; Having freed the Israelites from slavery, the Torah must now legislate to change the very nature of slavery it moves from person who is owned forever to a temporary status only becoming permanent when the living conditions are preferable to freedom – it begins the forward stride towards equality, the first steps out of the iron age into an age of moral reasoning.
In the Oral Law we are taught that there are various kinds of laws, from Chukim (laws that have no logical rational) to Mishpatim, laws that even if the Torah had not specifically commanded us to observe these laws, the human mind would have come to the realisation that these laws are necessary to have a “civilized society”.
However here in lies the terrible lesson, no matter how much we may trust in such a civilised society to arrive at these conclusions, the rule of history is replete with painful lessons of what happens when we entrust morality to our own reasoning;
Last night we lit candles for Holocaust memorial day, a reminder not only of the cruelty and terror of the Shoah and those who perished, but of how a society such as Europe “freed” by the enlightenment, empowered by philosophy, art, high culture and reasonable living standards can quickly fall into absolute tyranny; society is much like the tower of babel, it may touch the stars and deliver many technological and cultural revolutions without the same focus on virtue, kindness or compassion.
From our modern perspective it shocks us, from our perspective slavery in all its forms is a terrible evil, an evil that we still permit to exist within our the world:
Beyond the arguments of wage-slavery and civil rights in the 1st world is the knowledge that old fashioned slavery has never truly been abolished – whether that is expressed in a financial, sexual or political sense.
Slavery has far from being driven from the world – it has simply moved underground into the shadows of illegality: it has not disappeared but rather is found in every city in every country in the world.
Modern times have given rise to mass slavery to social conformity, to drug abuse, to human trafficking on an international scale – our desire for items such as coffee, precious gems and rare earth elements needed for our technology literally imprisons millions of our fellow brothers and sisters.
Perhaps the question is not how the Torah is able to legislate slavery in the Iron Age, but how we continue to permit and stand as bystanders towards its existence today; our consumerism has made many into modern slaves and reduced us to slaves of immediate gratification and comfort.
Our Prophets and Sages knew that the power of the Exodus is that it would inspire global redemption for mankind, provided we do not turn a blind eye to the obvious situation before us.
May we be blessed to continue to walk towards to the moment of true redemption of slavery for all mankind.
Rabbi Jonathan Goldschmidt 2022 ©