This week we read about acceptable forms of slavery. The idea that the Torah condones slavery is odd, considering that the Torah preaches human dignity. How can we rectify the concepts of one man being obligated to fulfill the will of another with Torah values? We recognize that the Torah permits slavery, but we would be amiss if we did not also mention the restrictions that the Torah puts on it. Every Shabbat and Yom Tov is to be a day of rest for Jewish slaves. They are not to perform back breaking or dehumanizing work ever. The work described by the Torah is a lesser degree than we usually associate with slavery, and is more along the lines with that of an indentured servant.
Nonetheless, why does the Torah allow slavery at all? Rambam explains that it was because Bnei Yisrael needed to ease out of the Egyptian way of life. All of the religions and lifestyles that they had seen until this point included slavery. Hashem understood that if He uprooted something that was integral to the only society that they understood, there would be a very negative response. (This is also Rambam’s explanation for Korbanot. Bnei Yisrael needed animal sacrifice as a way to worship, because they were used to it from their time in Egypt.) This situation played itself out American history. The northern abolitionists demanded that the South change its way of life and outlaw slavery. Our country experienced the negative effects of an attempt at drastic change when the disagreement over slavery in America sparked a bloody Civil War.
Rather than completely abolish slavery from the regimen, Hashem placed a great deal of restrictions upon slavery to ease Bnei Yisrael out of it. Another Halachah that teaches this is that a Jewish slave was to be freed in the Shemitah year. This changes the perception of both the slave and the slave owner. Rather than a slave seeing his servitude as a lifelong sentence, he knows that he will be free soon. Additionally, the master will not feel that he is superior. He also knows that this situation, in which he is greater than his slave, is only for this brief time. The Torah also makes it seem as if the non-Jewish slave is superior to the master in a number of ways. For example, the slave and the master always eat the same food. If there is only one bed available, the slave gets the bed. This creates a sense of equality between the slave and the slave owner. Thus, Bnei Yisrael, on their own terms, rather than on God’s, came to the conclusion that slavery was not the best path to take. During the time of the Roman Empire, even the wealthiest Jews had very few slaves, and those slaves were to be treated as well as kings treated their subjects. This rejection of slavery was more meaningful than a Mitzvah forbidding slaves because the people came to the conclusion themselves.
One may ask, if this is truly Hashem’s plan? Is there a parallel situation in which Hashem gradually introduces an idea to the Jewish people? Rav Berel Wein makes the connection between this and the Eishet Yefat Toar. When a soldier would go out to a war he would be allowed to take a beautiful non Jewish captive. The Torah does impose many restrictions on this permission that teach that such behavior proper does not conform with Torah ideals. The Torah permits the Eishet Yefat Toar because it would be too difficult for soldiers in the heat of combat to resist.
There is an important lesson that emerges from the comparison of the Torah’s permission of slavery and the Eishet Yefat Toar. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that there were four famous revolutions that were guided by two different role models. The French and Russian revolutions were guided by philosophers. Both of these revolutions failed and led to more hardships. The English and American rebellions got their inspiration from the Bible. These revolutions were successful and led to enhanced civil rights. The reason that the Bible-led rebellions fared better than those led by philosophers, Sacks claims, is due to the Bible’s gradual approach to improving human behavior. The philosophers take drastic approaches demanding drastic changes which are impossible to sustain long-term while the Bible is more manageable.
We should learn from this that we should grow slowly but steadily in our Avodat Hashem, and to take the Mitzvot one small step at a time.