Soon we will sit at our Seder tables taking the imaginative journey from freedom to slavery. Although we are commanded to relive this experience, we all know that whatever we say and do will only be a poor simulation of what our ancestors suffered. Even the joy of freedom will be hard to muster since it is something we take for granted today. One way to put ourselves into the mindset of the slave is to compare the Egyptian treatment of us as slaves to the institution of slavery and its limits in the Hebrew Bible.
Slavery was permitted in the days of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud but not regarded as a desideratum in Jewish law. It was seen as an inevitability of its day that needed strict guidelines since the exertion of power over another human being is never to be taken lightly. Individuals could sell themselves into slavery to pay off debt. Others were captives of war. It would be more accurate to call an "eved" an indentured servant than a slave, given our associations with slavery in the past centuries. This kind of barbaric forced work at the risk of death is completely forbidden in Jewish law and punishable by death: "He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:16)
The following verses illustrate some of the Jewish restrictions on power in this relationship that are the exact opposite of the outcry described by our ancestors at the hands of a cruel and hard-hearted Pharaoh:
- "If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished." (Exodus 21:20)
- "If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth." (Exodus 21:26-27)
- "He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:12)
- "Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves. (Exodus 23:12)
- "Now if a man lies carnally with a woman who is a slave acquired for another man, but who has in no way been redeemed nor given her freedom, there shall be punishment..."(Leviticus 19:20)
- "You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you." (Deuteronomy 23:15)
- "If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave's service. He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee. He shall then go out from you, he and his sons with him, and shall go back to his family, that he may return to the property of his forefathers. For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God." (Leviticus 25:39-43)
- "If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment." (Exodus 21:2)
- "Do not slander a slave to his master or he will curse you and you will be found guilty." (Proverbs 30:10)
- "He who pampers his slave from childhood will in the end find him to be a son." (Proverbs 29:21)
Finally, the Talmudic statement above, says it all. We don't even use the word "slave" lightly and ostracize someone who does for denying the freedom of agency that we believe is inherent in all human beings regardless of status. Maimonides, in his "Laws of Indentured Servants" helps us understand how to negotiate the tensions of having too much power over another. He contends that one can deal with a slave harshly yet,
...although this is the law, the way of the pious and the wise is to be compassionate and to pursue justice, not to overburden or oppress a servant. One must provide for them from every dish and every drink. The early sages would give their servants from every dish on their table. They would feed their animals and their servants before sitting to their own meals...So, too, you should not denigrate a servant, neither physically nor verbally. The Torah made him your servant to do work, not to be disgraced. Do not treat him with constant verbal abuse and anger, rather speak to him pleasantly and listen to his complaints. Such were the good ways in which Job took pride when he said, "Did I ever despise the judgment of my servant and my maid when they argued with me? Did not my Maker make him, too, in the belly; did not the same One form us both in the womb?"
The integrity of the human being is always what ultimately matters. The same God made us all. We should feel uncomfortable that slavery appears in the Torah at all. And every time we fail to use our own human agency to prevent injustice, we, too minimize that godliness in ourselves and others. We opt into another form of slavery when we compromise our freedom, as Harriet Tubman so beautifully said, "I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves."
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover. May it be a time of true freedom.