Telephone Torah Study: Exodus Morality
This week’s Torah portion (Thursday, 1/23 4-5pm) is Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1-24:18). Mishpatim focuses on what Carol Towarnicky calls “Exodus Morality”; or, “We must not perpetrate upon others that which was perpetrated upon us.” To join in on the conference call, please dial 702-851-4044, when prompted punch in 2, then our pass code 22252#.
Whether or not we know the suffering of the slaves, we are commanded to act as if we do. Directed to a people who have traveled only a short distance in time and space from slavery, the mishpatim are anything but mundane legalisms–they are instructions for building a just society.
american jewish world serviceOne of the most profound directives is the incredible command, repeated twice in this parashah alone, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20, 23:19).” This is the epitome of Exodus morality: we must not perpetrate upon others that which was perpetrated upon us.
Parashat Mishpatim contains the Torah’s first law collection, which–unlike all other ancient Near-Eastern law collections–begins with regulations concerning slavery. The Torah seems unable to imagine an economy without slaves, but it frowns upon Hebrew slavery. Consequently, for Israelites in debt, Exodus 21:2-6 prescribes indentured servitude, but limited to six years. If a man enters debt-slavery while married, the master must let his wife go when he is released. However, if the master gives him a slave wife, the master retains the wife and children. What happens if the debt-slave declares, “I love my master and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free” (21:5)? He then has his earlobe pierced with an awl, and he becomes a slave in perpetuity, which the Rabbis interpret to mean until the Jubilee, or fiftieth, year.
Liberal readers are often sympathetic to this noble fellow who relinquishes his freedom to stay with his slave wife and children. But how would this case look from the perspective of the slave wife? I will argue that it looks much different. Who is this slave woman? She is not the amah ivriyah (Hebrew indentured servant) the text speaks about in 21:7-12. In that case, a girl has been sold by a presumably impoverished Israelite parent into a wealthier family on the understanding that she will eventually be married to the master or one of his sons as a free woman. This practice is well attested in other ancient Near Eastern documents. Should the man take another wife, he must continue to support her. An Israelite woman may not be resold if her owner is displeased with her; instead, she must go free without any compensation to the master. Her servitude, too, is time limited.
1. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Ex. 21:24)
2. You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger; having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 23:9)
3. You shall serve your God Adonai, who will bless your bread and water. And I will remove sickness from your midst. (Ex. 23:25)