Mishpatim · Torah Portion

Mishpatim and Slavery

 

“‘In that day,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘I will break the yoke off their necks and will tear off their bonds; no longer will foreigners enslave them” (Jeremiah 30:8).

One would think that a people freed from Egypt and Babylon would do away and want no part of slavery, but sometimes it takes a little longer than we would believe in freeing our minds from ignorance.

In 2015, my husband and I lived in a small town for about a year. Almost everything in the town seemed frozen in time, from the town square, to mostly the same staple eateries. A change had to occur gradually for folks there. If too abrupt, people can’t seem to swallow it. A dear friend reminded me of this today by sending out a quote from Mary Shelly, who once said, “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” The small town was pushing to let go of a law that’s been in effect since the 1920’s. They’ve been prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol for decades. Of course, you can get alcohol here. You just have to go through the drive-thru of the local bootlegger who is well known by most folks in the town, including the police. As a matter of fact, I hear in some places the police call and warn the bootlegger before they head in for a raid. I read an article about one woman who was able to purchase wine at 14 from the bootlegger in this town. No I.D required. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it, alcohol is not the problem, neither is food, or sex, its men who are over-indulgent.

To get towns like this one prepared, they came up up with something in-between called “moist.” This is when the people are allowed to have a glass of wine or an alcoholic drink with dinner, but not on Sunday and not without food involved. Many towns like this one try and ease into the new mindset so the people can adapt, which brings me to our Torah portion–Mishpatim.

This Torah portion can be touchy and often misconstrued through ignorance. When we start chapter 21 of Exodus, we see slavery mentioned and rules for slaves. They were not slaves in the sense that you may envision. What is going on here is indentured servitude. Of course, that was only for fellow Hebrews. Ownership did exist, and I am not condoning it. Due to the times and culture, the topic of slavery had to be addressed in the Torah, and it had to be eased into. We found that out the hard way in our own nation. Men in Lincoln’s day found verses in favor of slavery, and they found verses against it. One God, one Book, and many different doctrines.

Let’s take a look at the verses closely.

“If you purchase a Hebrew slave, he is to work six years; but in the seventh, he is to be given his freedom without having to pay anything. If he came single, he is to leave single; if he was married when he came, his wife is to go with him when he leaves. But if his master gave him a wife, and she bore him sons or daughters, then the wife and her children will belong to her master, and he will leave by himself. Nevertheless, if the slave declares, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children, so I don’t want to go free,’ then his master is to bring him before God; and there at the door or doorpost, his master is to pierce his ear with an awl; and the man will be his slave for life.” Exodus 21:2-6 CJB.

Benei Avraham explains more in his blog Mishpatim:

“This passage alludes to the Messiah, to the Messiah’s devotion to God, and our devotion to the Messiah. The numerical value of the words “Hebrew slave” in Hebrew have the same numerical value of the Hebrew word, “Messiah.” It is as if the Messiah said, in Psalms 40:6, “My ears you have pierced.”

The case of the permanent slave also speaks to our own servitude to the Messiah, and the Torah.

If we are to love our families, our children, and our spouses in the proper way, we must first love our master. This is why the servant says, “I love my master, my wife, and my children,” in that order. Yeshua alludes to this idea in Matthew 10:37, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” 

“If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do. If she is displeasing in the eyes of her master who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed” (Exodus 21:7-8, NASB).

According to myjewishlearning.com, “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.”

Hebrew slaves were given rest on Shabbat, Feast days, and ate the same food as their masters. When we study more verses on “slavery,” we get a much more humane picture of what was happening here for the Hebrew slaves, as they were given parting gifts. Here is a passage from Deuteronomy 15:13-18:

“If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, he is to serve you for six years; but in the seventh year, you are to set him free. Moreover, when you set him free, don’t let him leave empty-handed; but supply him generously from your flock, threshing-floor and winepress; from what Adonai your God has blessed you with, you are to give to him. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and Adonai your God redeemed you; that is why I am giving you this order today. But if he says to you, ‘I don’t want to leave you,’ because he loves you and your household, and because his life with you is a good one; then take an awl, and pierce his ear through, right into the door; and he will be your slave forever. Do the same with your female slave. Don’t resent it when you set him free, since during his six years of service he has been worth twice as much as a hired employee. Then Adonai your God will bless you in everything you do.”

 

In Jeremiah 34, HaShem clarifies that the people have sinned by not releasing the male and female bondservants in the 7th year, and He again reiterates that they once were slaves in Egypt until He set them free.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, In Rabbinical Literature:

The following account is drawn mainly from Maimonides’ Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah:

The Hebrew servant referred to in the Torah is of two classes: (1) he whom the court has sold without his consent; and (2) he who has willingly sold himself. The court may sell a man for theft only, as noted above. A man may sell himself (Lev. xxv. 39) because of extreme poverty; after all, his means are exhausted; he should not sell himself as long as any means are left to him. He should not sell himself to a woman, nor to a convert, nor to a Gentile. Should he do so, however, even if he sells himself to a heathen temple, the sale is valid; but it then becomes the duty not only of his kinsmen, but of all Israelites, to redeem him, lest he becomes “swallowed up” in heathendom. The sale of a Hebrew into bondage should be made privately, not from an auction block, nor even from the sidewalk, where other slaves are sold.”

 

Enslaved people were treated horribly, and to put a stop to these practices, the Torah went into detail. You may remember that Samson’s eyes were gouged out. Nebuchadnezzar gouged out king Zedekiah’s eyes. They would pull out their teeth so they could not eat much, and they would beat them to death. If they broke something, they lost a hand. They were castrated and treated horribly. The Romans would even cut out their tongues to bring unwanted information among leaders that they may have overheard. The Torah’s instruction was to save, free, and bring better treatment to those in servitude positions. But like all progress, at times, we must ease into it.

 

Job is thought to be the oldest book recorded. He had this to say:

“If I have despised the claim of my male or female slaves when they filed a complaint against me, what then could I do when God arises? And when He calls me to account, what will I answer Him? “Did not He who made me in the womb make him, And the same one fashion us in the womb?” (Job 31:13-15, NASB).

All the other nations owned their slaves, but in the Torah, Hebrew slaves would go free in the 7th year and not leave empty-handed but with livestock and abundance just as Israel’s children left Egypt. Ultimately, when you read about slavery, it comes back to loving your neighbor as yourself, and that includes everyone:

“Never deprive foreigners and orphans of justice. And never take widows’ clothes to guarantee a loan. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and the Lord, your God, freed you from slavery. So I’m commanding you to do this. This is what you must do when you’re harvesting wheat in your field. If you forget to bring in one of the bundles of wheat, don’t go back to get it. Leave it there for foreigners, orphans, and widows. Then the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. When you harvest olives from your trees, never knock down all of them. Leave some for foreigners, orphans, and widows. When you pick the grapes in your vineyard, don’t pick all of them. Leave some for foreigners, orphans, and widows. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. So I’m commanding you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:17-22).

Even the slaves that were beaten and were under ownership, were gradually given more and more freedom. Even in Deuteronomy, we read, “If a slave escapes from his master and comes to you, don’t return him to his master. Let him stay with you and live among your people wherever he chooses, in any of your cities that seems best to him. Never mistreat him” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).

This goes against the laws in place at that time among other nations. If an enslaved person ran off, they would kill him, and if you took in a runaway slave, they would kill you as well. Some people treat their dogs in a manner that’s just unbearable—beating and chaining an animal outside in the cold, feeding them unhealthy food, and never speaking kind words to them. I see this gradually changing too. I’ve come to look at it like the dry, wet, and moist counties, it was a gradual change, and we are still changing now. If we could only rid sex slavery and trafficking! Going over some Torah portions is more inspirational than others, but I also believe we need to dig in and learn all we can about our faith.

I pray this has helped you with some difficult passages.

Blessings,

Tekoa Manning

Sources: Benei Avraham, My Jewish Learning, Maimonides’ Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah:

Photo by Hussain Badshaw

 

Shemot · Tekoa Manning · Torah Portion

Shemot Part II, The Burning Bush

Moses picks up his staff and continues moving his father-in-law’s sheep along the rugged terrain. He has been doing this for 40 years, and it has been therapeutic and back-breaking. The heat of the noon-day sun beams down upon him as he ponders being a shepherd for so long. His occupation has undoubtedly given him much time to think and converse with the God of his fathers, but Moses wonders if he missed his calling. He longs for more.

His mother, Jochebed, told Moses that he had an assignment to free his people from their burdens, but Moses knows that can never be. Not after his past.  He’s made too many mistakes. Moses can still hear the voice of his fellow Hebrew. He had tried to bring correction years ago, but was met with the retort of “Who made you, Moses, to be a ruler and judge over us? Are you planning to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
Moses had been so grieved over his people’s high taxing, heavy labor, and their bondage, but he was not mature enough then to deal with his emotions. Moses was still enraged over the stories his parents and siblings had told him of how all the male babies had drowned in the Nile and were eaten by crocodiles. How the innocent blood of these newborn sons filled the water, and a stench rose through the air. Beautiful life snuffed out and by who? His own adopted grandfather. He heard stories of how his people wept and wept until they had no tears left. Moses understood grief.

On the backside of the desert, alone, Moses has come to know the Holy One’s Voice. He has had much time to meditate on the lessons he’s learned as a shepherd and all the ways he has gained understanding from his sorrow.

Moses has had many hours to replay the events of Egypt and his family he left there, but what has haunted him from his past the most was the man’s life he had taken. His hands had shed blood and he had buried him in the sand. If Moses tries hard enough, he can still see the young man he killed and feel the sand in his hands packing and covering the Egyptians body. Now aged and worn from the many miles of travel–his skin bronzed from the sun’s heat, yes, now as his hair has turned white with age, he knows he had acted foolishly and out of anger. Oh, how he longed to go back in time and change the circumstances, but this too was impossible. It had taken years for Moses to get over his past. Moses recalls the day he raised his hands toward heaven and said, God of my fathers, if You have forgiven me, I now forgive myself! Suddenly the sky had lit up, and a light rain began to wash his tears and moisten his face. He had laughed so hard, and Moses had felt so free afterward that he fell to the ground and prostrated himself–laughing and crying in release as the rain fell softly over him.

Moses has gained keen eyesight for spotting wolves and predators that attack sheep, and he has learned their demeanor—sneaking around salivating, watching from hidden places, and waiting to pounce on one of the younger, weaker lambs. Once when he was bringing the sheep to the river to drink, a little lamb lingered back and would not drink. Moses picked up the lamb and carried it. He took rocks and made a still area, so the water was not rushing swiftly, and he coaxed the lamb to drink. While caring for the little ewe, he noticed a rustling in the trees and saw a wolf ready to pounce on one of the smaller sheep. Moses drew his sling and nailed the wolf sending it yelping away.

 

Moses knows that his sheep know his voice. When the other shepherds bring their sheep to the river to drink, Moses calls, and his sheep, and only his sheep, follow him. He laughs at a memory of Zipporah calling from the sheep gate and trying to get them to follow her. They would not. His wife had been a great blessing during the birthing season. His sons and wife, one year, delivered almost 300 lambs with the help of Jethro and the servants. Zipporah is strongly built and tougher than many a man, but Moses sees her softer side, and when she is transparent, she is lovely to behold–an excellent mother.

Today Moses feels exhausted, and he is concerned about his future and his parents and siblings in Egypt. Besides a few secretive meetings, he has not seen his family much in 40 years. Moses realizes time has run swiftly like a gazelle past him and his reflection in the river keeps getting older and what has he done with his days under the sun? His mother and father spared his life, but for what? To tend sheep. Moses flashes back to when he was a young man. While visiting the Pharaoh with his mother, he had placed the Pharaoh’s crown on his head. Soon whispers began to spread that Moses would one day usurp the kingdom. But instead, he had fled and was a wanted man. His time in Egypt seemed like another lifetime when he was another person.

Moses continues pondering the many things that are troubling him. He wonders what it is about Mount Horeb that draws him to it. Will he die here on this mountain? The sun is starting to lower on the horizon, and Moses realizes he needs to get the sheep back home to safety. Predators are prevalent at night.

Suddenly as he turns to leave, he sees a bush, and it is lit with flames as if on fire. Moses stops. He feels a wind stirring in his spirit that he has never felt. “What is this sight? I must go over and see this marvelous vision. Why is the bush not burning up? Moses takes steps and stands in front of the spectacle in awe. Suddenly a Voice speaks, and it resonates with his insides. It is the loudest voice Moses had ever heard, and yet it is a whisper—it fills him with both wonder and fear.

“Moses, Moses!”

“Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer to the bush. Remove your sandals for this place where you stand is Holy ground. For I am the God of your fathers. I am the God of Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob.”

“I have indeed seen the affliction of My people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their oppressors, and I am aware of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me, and I have seen how severely the Egyptians are oppressing them. Therefore, go! I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring My people the Israelites out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:7-10, ESV).

Moses is trying to wrap his brain around what he is hearing. His mind is filled with concern and worry, and why the God of His fathers would send him?

“Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Moses ponders his identity and a lifetime of mistakes. What power or authority could he possibly have? He had to flee for his life after he murdered the Egyptian. Someone may still be seeking my life, he thought.

“Moses, I am Your God, and I will surely be with you, and this will be the sign to you that I have sent you to free your people. When you have brought the people out of Egypt all of you will worship me on this holy mountain for the great deliverance you will see with your own eyes!

“Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ What should I tell them?”

 

Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you. ‘The God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is how I am to be remembered in every generation.

“Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—has appeared to me and said: I have surely attended to you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your affliction in Egypt, into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’

The elders of Israel will listen to what you say, and you must go with them to the king of Egypt and tell him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Now please let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness, so that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.’ But I know that the king of Egypt will not allow you to go unless a mighty hand compels him. So, I will stretch out My hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders I will perform among them. And after that, he will release you.

And I will grant this people such favor in the sight of the Egyptians that when you leave, you will not go away empty-handed. Every woman shall ask her neighbor and any woman staying in her house for silver and gold jewelry and clothing, and you will put them on your sons and daughters. So you will plunder the Egyptians.” (Exodus 3:16-22, ESV)

Moses stands and weighs the weight of what he is hearing. It is heavy to contemplate.  He is fearful, and Moses realizes that when he had the fire in his soul and the Chutzpah to take on Pharoah, the strength of a young man, the mind of a young man, the fearlessness of man and the boldness to correct his brethren, he blew it. He doesn’t have the ability to lead people now. Back then, perhaps. Now? No way. No how!

Oh, mighty Elohim, behold, the people will not believe me. Why would they listen to my voice? They won’t believe me. They will say, “The Holy One did not appear to you!”

“What is that in your hand, Moses?”

“A staff.”

“Throw it on the ground, Moses.”

Moses threw it on the ground, and his staff became a serpent.

Moses jumped and then ran from the serpent.

“Put out your hand and catch it by the tail”

Moses obeyed in wonder and caught the serpent, and the serpent became a staff.

Moses these signs will follow you that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.”

“Again, the LORD said to him, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” And he put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow. Then God said, “Put your hand back inside your cloak.” So he put his hand back inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. “If they will not believe you,” God said, “or listen to the first sign, they may believe the latter sign. If they will not believe even these two signs or listen to your voice, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground” (Exodus 4:6-9, ESV).

Moses meditates on the blood of all the male babies born during his day that filled the Nile and now, the Holy One is telling him that if the people do not believe him, he will be able to turn water into blood? Oh, the burden of what Moses is hearing is too much for him to bare or comprehend . And, all his weaknesses and mistakes and inability to lead a people are crashing into him. THUNDERING!

“Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” But he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” (Exodus 4:10-13, ESV).

Suddenly, the bush glowed with such heat, Moses could feel the anger of the Mighty One, and he regretted his weaknesses and lack of seeing his identity.

****

Jill Hammer 27 Tevet, The Snake and the Branch:

Moses expresses doubts about this mission. The Holy One gives Moses a sign, turning Moses’ staff into a snake and then back into a staff. This staff is a symbol of “gevurah,” strength. It is at the same time part of a tree, a symbol of the Tree of Life; and as a snake, which is able to put its tail in its mouth, it is the circle of life.

Moses has been a staff: He has supported his wife and father-in-law and nurtured his flock. Now he is to become a snake and bite at the heel of Pharoah. The Divine asks Moses to respect and nourish the circle of life. Moses must be willing to turn back into a staff, back into a nourisher and sustainer, when that is needed. According to Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliiezer, the staff of Moses has been a gift to humanity since Creation. It teaches us to be gentle as well as fierce.”

The Jewish Book of Days, pg. 153, Jill Hammer.

Part I click HERE