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The Gift of Freedom

The Parasha this week is Mishpatim, considered the beginning of what is called the "Book of the Covenant." Portrayed as being instructed by God to Moses while still on Mount Sinai, the Book of the Covenant is really the first set of detailed Torah legislation. It includes laws on how to treat slaves and the penalty for various crimes. All of these laws are meant to provide a structure for the newly forming Israelite society. We must remember that the people had only known slavery throughout their whole lives and now they must be taught the rules and regulations of a free society. Without these they might assume that freedom was equivalent to anarchy and havoc would ensue (just think of the Golden Calf incident which takes place while Moses is still on Sinai receiving all of these laws).

In reading these laws it has always fascinated me that the first law is concerning how they are to treat a Hebrew slave. How strange that one of the first regulations for a newly freed people would be how to treat their own slaves! One would think the text would state unequivocally that slavery was not to be permitted or that this would be the last thing on the people's minds.

The laws concerning slaves are complex, but include the fact that slaves are to be freed every seventh (sabbatical) year -- unless that slave decides that he does not desire freedom (this section does not actually discus female slaves). In that case the slave is to be brought "...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."

There are many commentaries about this text, but it seems clear to me that the author meant to remind the reader of the importance of freedom. Freedom is a precious gift from God. If we are forced to give up that freedom due to financial necessity (most slaves, it would seem, became enslaved in order to pay off a debt or because they did not have enough financial means) then this status must only be temporary and the slaves must be treated with dignity. However, if for some reason that slave becomes accustomed to his slave status he must be permanently marked, and this must be done "before God."

God tells Moses on Sinai that we are to be servants of the Divine and serve no human master. If we choose to abrogate this responsibility and instead serve another person then we must let God and the community know of our choice. Just as Cain was forced to wander the world with the mark on his forehead to remind the world of his sin (murdering his brother) so the slave that chooses to remain enslaved is forced to wear a permanent reminder that he has chosen to deny God's gift of freedom.

In contemporary times many people choose to continue their enslavement to other human beings, businesses, greed, or substances such as drugs and alcohol. Sometimes these things are beyond our control. Yet, if we remember that we are all meant to serve the Divine, that we are each meant to use the godliness within us in order to better the world and not just for our own personal good, then hopefully we can release ourselves from our enslavement. In the case of addictions it may be a little more complicated than that, but 12 step programs that turn oneself over to a "higher power" have been very effective in bringing one back to a life of freedom.

We all struggle with how to best use the gift of freedom in our lives. Let us never forget to appreciate how precious this gift is and let us always use it wisely to better not only our own lives, but the lives of those in our family, our community and the world.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah