As God’s first act in the Torah, we learn that separating the light from darkness is of primary importance. Distinguishing between good and bad, between light and darkness is a challenge in a world colored by rich and complex shades of gray. The subtleties are better understood by the heart than the mind, but both can be tricked.
Since the beginning, man has searched for a simple answer or rule to follow. The best answer so far comes from Rabbi Hillel, who offered: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and study.” -Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a
When he concluded with, “go and study”, he may have been referring to this week’s parsha, Mishpatim Exodus 21:1-24:18, which lays out a set of laws to guide us in our personal, religious and communal lives.
In the first of these laws addresses slavery. In my professional life, I see all forms of slavery. As a Rabbinic Intern for Jewish World Watch, where Rabbi Harold Schulweis reminds us that we must not “stand idly by the blood of our neighbor”, I see a world where oppressive chattel slavery is even more prevelant, claiming even more victims than there were at the height of the North Atlantic Slave Trade. There is no mistaking light and darkness when it comes to this chattel slavery. It is clear that we must cry out for the voiceless and stand up for the powerless.
But what about consensual slavery? At the Jewish Committee for Personal Service, where I counsel and advocate for Jewish inmates in Los Angeles County Jail and California State prisons, I am confronted and challenged by issues of consensual slavery. Our Torah presents us with an ugly truth: there are people in our society who become enslaved by drugs, negativity and the worship of false idols (money. property and prestige). Theirs is a darkness which blinds them to the beauty of freedom and allows them to willingly adopt an anti-social lifestyle so devoid of light that it is as if they are declaring “I do not want to go free” and allowing their masters to pierce their ears with an awl.
As we follow Hillel’s proposal and “go and study”, we see amid the criminal legislation and religious laws described in this parsha, that we are commanded to provide justice for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. In fact, the call to care for the stranger, the widow and the orphan is so important to Judaism, that it is repeated no less than 36 times in the Torah – more than any other idea! All slaves – those who are victims of others’ brutality and those who are subject to an inner oppression – are strangers, widows and orphans from freedom, from dignity and from justice. As Jews we are commanded to care for those who have no voice in our society – those who have no power to advocate for themselves.
Slavery in all forms is devoid of justice. It is hateful. We are called on to go further than Hillel suggests, not just avoid to enslaving ourselves and others, but we are called to take action to liberate those who are not free. It is our duty to restore justice to the world. We must counsel the consenting slave and aid in his redemption and return to community.
Maimonides, suggests in Hilchot Matanot Aniyim, that to fulfill the Mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuyim (redeeming the captive) is the highest and most holy of acts “The redeeming of captives takes precedence over supporting the poor or clothing them. There is no greater mitzvah than redeeming captives for the problems of the captive include being hungry, thirsty, unclothed, and they are in danger of their lives too. Ignoring the need to redeem captives goes against these Torah laws: “Do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy fellow” (Devarim 15:7); “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” (Vayikra 19:16). And misses out on the following mitzvot: “You must surely open your hand to him or her” (Devarim15:8); “…Love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18); “Rescue those who are drawn to death” (Proverbs 24:11) and there is no mitzvah greater than the redeeming of captives.”
As we consider our duty and commitment to repair and bring justice to the world, let us begin by fighting slavery. Let our hearts and minds not be fooled by the subtle forms of slavery. Let us search for slavery within ourselves. Let us help others to see their own self-enslavement. And let us all cry out to God to end slavery now in every form and every place.
Gregory D. Metzger
Harold M. Schulweis Rabbinic Intern
Jewish World Watch