Rabbi Alexandra Wright – 1 February 2019
Mishpatim contains the first body of legislation in the Torah and is known as the ‘Book of the Covenant’ – sefer ha-brit. It is the only collection of laws from the ancient Near East that begins with the topic of slavery. Why? Because as Nahum Sarna says in his commentary to these laws: “Having recently experienced liberation from bondage, the Israelite is enjoined to be especially sensitive to the condition of the slave” (JPS, Exodus, page 118). The words of the Decalogue: “I am the Eternal One your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” not only declare God to be the agent of Israel’s freedom, but also mandate the right of the slave to enjoy Shabbat – a day of weekly rest.
There are three key passages in the Torah that deal with slavery and each one represents a development on the preceding one. In this week’s parashah, Exodus 21 introduces us to the idea of what early commentators understand to be a sabbatical year for slaves. The Hebrew slave serves for six years and then goes free in the seventh without payment. If he arrives single, he leaves single. If he arrives with a wife, the wife leaves with him. If his owner or master gives him a wife and she has borne children, then they belong to the master and he leaves alone. This is the general principle. But there are two exceptions. The male slave has the option of remaining with his master if he wishes to do so, while a female slave may not have the freedom to go free, but may become the wife of her master. In the first case of the male slave who wishes to stay with his master, he is taken before God – which probably means that he is to appear before witnesses in the sanctuary and his ear is pierced with an awl. The Hebrew word is martze’a, from the root meaning ‘to bore’ or ‘to pierce.’
The pierced ear – which may symbolise other things today – was then the mark of an individual who had enslaved himself to his owner. The ear that heard the words on Mount Sinai, declaring Israel to be God’s servants, freed from the land of Egypt, must not give themselves over into servitude (Leviticus 25:42).
The Talmud struggles with the fact that a man may want to indenture himself as a slave to a human master, when the Torah so clearly declares that the Israelites are to be servants only of God. So this rather primitive and humiliating ritual in which a slave-owner marks his slave physically with a symbol of ownership is reinterpreted in religious and ethical terms and the slave is seen not as a loyal employee – he is not an employee for he has no rights – but as one who has transgressed the exclusive covenantal relationship with God.
Now compare this rather harsh treatment of the slave – who goes out free with nothing – with the legislation in Deuteronomy. The owner is required to set his slave free in the seventh year, but at the same time is to help the slave find some measure of independence. He is to be furnished with something from the flock, threshing floor and vat from his master. “Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Eternal One your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today” (Deut. 15:12-15). If however, the slave is happy to remain in his owner’s household, then the same treatment is required – an awl shall be pierced through his ear into the door and he shall become a slave in perpetuity.
If we look at the third text on slavery, from Leviticus 25, we see an even greater developed sense of moral sensitivity in the Torah. The individual, in dire straits and completely dependent on someone else, must not become a slave at all (25:39). They shall remain with the individual, but as a hired labourer. In the Jubilee year, they shall go free back to their ancestral holding. That may have been an ideal in Levitical terms, but it was a marked progression and it has been suggested that indentured Israelites, not only would not have been treated as slaves, but would have been provided with housing and fair allowances (see The Torah, A Woman’s Commentary, Leviticus 25:40, page 756).
Modern slavery is deeply hidden and includes women brought to this country as sex slaves, for domestic slavery and men and women to work in fields, factories and fishing, as well as children. Shockingly, reports estimate that the number of suspected victims of trafficking and modern slavery in Britain has risen from 13,000 in 2015 to 136,000 in 2018. In 2017, 41% of the 5,145 cases reported in this country involved children under the age of 18.
In December 2014, the Pope was joined by leaders of other religions, including Jewish leaders to sign a declaration to eradicate slavery by the year 2020. It ended with these words: “Modern slavery in terms of human trafficking, forced labour and prostitution, organ trafficking and any relationship that fails to respect the fundamental conviction that all people are equal and have the same freedom and dignity, is a crime against humanity.”
How much nearer are we today to eradicating slavery by 2020? While awareness of slavery has increased in the police in recent years, there are not enough resources to tackle complex cases. And protection for victims is inconsistent and not long enough. Victims may have to move out of a safe house before they have had time to recover from abuse, while children are a cause of great concern.
And as Hannah Wheatley, in an article in the Guardian last year, said, we all have a responsibility to be vigilant: ‘We can’t leave it to law enforcement to fight human trafficking alone. All of us must stand watch against modern slavery, rooting it out of our communities, leaving no refuge for traffickers’ (‘Slavery still exists in modern Britain. My campaign aims to end that’ – The Guardian).
When we have completed our wrangling over Brexit, let us hope and pray that all of us can renew our strength and moral vigour to tackle the great ethical issues of our time – including slavery and poverty. We have much to do and although we cannot complete the task, we should not desist from it.
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