Letting Our People Go

Bringing Us All Out of Egypt.

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After the Ten Commandments, Parashat Mishpatim seems like a letdown. One week we read of God's thundering voice, of mountains ablaze and trembling listeners, of the fundamental laws of the Torah. The next, it's the most everyday of worlds--donkeys and sheep, lost objects and paid guardians, fistfights and insulted parents.

But we should read Mishpatim more carefully, because it's here that we learn what God really meant by making these words the prologue to the Ten Commandments: I am Adonai your God, the one who brought you out from the land of Egypt, the house of slaves. By looking at two sets of laws which structure this parashah, we can uncover what it means for us to live our everyday lives with the awareness of former slaves.

Laws on Slavery

The very first law in Mishpatim seems at first glance to be built on the opposite idea. It begins: "When you buy a Hebrew slave..." Stop right there!--how can the Israelites, so fresh out of Egypt, be buying each other as slaves?

To answer the question we have to continue reading. "Six years he shall work, and in the seventh you shalllet him go, free, without payment." A couple of things catch our attention. One is surely the numbers, six and seven, which remind us of the weekly cycle of work and rest characteristic of free people. The other is most apparent in Hebrew. The word "y'shalchenu, he shall let him go," is built from the same root as Moses' famous demand of Pharaoh, uttered in God's name: "Shalach et ami, Let My people go!"

We are being told here that the act of freeing a personal slave is really the same as God's act of freeing an entire nation from slavery. And the parallel builds: "But if the slave declares, 'I love my master...I do not wish to go free,' his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door [or the doorpost; mezuzah, in Hebrew] and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl--and he shall then remain his slave for life."

My teacher Rabbi Ed Greenstein explains that if you pierce an ear at the doorpost, what is left behind is a spot of blood. That detail completes the parallel between the slave owner in Israel and the Blessed Holy One in Egypt. The master who wishes to free his slave recreates the scene of the last night in Egypt. There, the slaves performed their first act as free people, defying the Egyptians by smearing blood on their doorposts from the sacrifice of a lamb, an animal sacred to the oppressors. In Mishpatim, by contrast, the master in effect says to the slave:"I want you free. You could walk out this door into freedom. If you don't, it's not because I didn't try, not because I held you back, not because I desired to oppress you."

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Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett

Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett is the founder and director of MACHAR, a national project in the United States involving Jewish youth in service that promotes self-sufficiency and economic empowerment and in study of Jewish and American "texts" on wealth, success, and social responsibility.