Where Jewish Law Begins
Based on Avdut Bat Yameinu
by Braha Bender
Sinai topped the charts. There simply was never anything like it. Some three million people witnessed the mountain wreathed in flame, darkness, cloud, and mist. The sound of the shofar tore through them. They saw torches of fire, columns of luminance, and legions of angels. Seven heavens opened before the Jewish People to reveal the innermost secrets of the entirety of creation. And then they heard God speak. All three million of them.
At Sinai God gave the Jewish People the Torah, His personal blueprint and guidebook to the universe. The guidebook outlines six hundred and thirteen commandments directing human life from the cradle to eternity.
The Torah’s description of Sinai is breathtaking, awesome, and seductive. Who wouldn’t want to know what God Himself had to say about how to live your best life? Parashas Mishpatim is the Torah portion immediately following the description of the Sinai event, when God jumps right in and begins dictating Torah law. It’s the opening scene, the pivotal moment. How do the laws of the Torah begin? Where does God start?
Where would you guess He would start? Many would guess that Torah law would begin with how to keep Shabbos and Jewish holidays. Maybe Torah law begins with waking up in the morning – the laws of cleanliness and prayer. Some would imagine that the Torah would begin its legal direction with a review of the laws of how to keep kosher or how to conduct a Jewish marriage.
But God is so creative, He’s just full of surprises. You know where He begins His laws? “And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them: If you buy a Jewish bondsman, he shall work for six years; and in the seventh he shall go free, for no charge” (Exodus 21:1-2). Why would God begin describing His legal system by talking about slavery?
Most of the western world is unaware that some twenty seven million people are enslaved in the world today. These men, women, and children are forced to labour under subhuman conditions, often including starvation and horrifying abuse. They are bought and sold like livestock without recourse to any alternate support systems, including basic legal resources and often including family. They are denied any ability to determine their own destiny. According to the U.S. Department of State, between 14,500 and 17,500 of them are trafficked into the United States.
According to this western definition of slavery, there is no such thing as a Jewish slave. The Jewish bondsman is a hired worker. Rather than hiring himself out to work for a day, or a month, the Jewish bondsman hires himself out to work for six years. The Jew is never allowed to permanently relinquish the ability to determine his or her own destiny.
And even during those six years, the Torah commands his employer to make sure that “it is good for him with you” (Deuteronomy 15:16). Abuse is not permitted, and more so, the employer is obligated to provide his bondsman with every human dignity. For example, Jewish law dictates that if there is only one bed to sleep on between a master and his bondsman, the bondsman gets the bed. Social norms generally applied to slavery stop short on the Jewish threshold: in the Torah home, things are different.
There are many lessons inherent in these verses, but one of their primary purposes is to teach the Jew how the Torah sees him, and how he is supposed to see himself. How she is supposed to see herself. A self-determining man or woman free to determine his or her own future. No matter what.
Does your life reflect your freedom of choice? Can you honestly say that you own your own freedom? Or is it eaten up by the petty things in life – enslavement to the mortgage, enslavement to the career, enslavement to the new car, the new house, the new corner office?
One of the most degrading aspects of slavery is that it robs human beings of the ability to maintain a family and to have a meaningful relationship with their children. Many are so enslaved to their jobs and other trivial pursuits that they have no meaningful relationship with their children either. Worst of all, many of us have no meaningful relationship with ourselves.
God begins describing His vision for humanity, His standards and guidelines for humanity, with an assertion that we must know and own our freedom. Free yourself! Claim your liberty. Determine your own destiny. “And there is no free man but one engaged in Torah.”