The Idea of Slavery by Binyamin Segal


Parashat Mishpatim opens with a discussion of the laws of Eved Ivri, the Jewish slave.  Why is this the first subject presented when the laws of slaves won’t even apply until fourteen years after Bnei Yisrael enter Israel?  Parashat Mishpatim should start with the laws relevant to Bnei Yisrael’s current situation in the desert!  The Parasha contains many laws indicating the responsibility of one Jew to for the welfare of another Jew, such as the laws of repaying damage.  We have the responsibility to help another Jew in need, even if we are not very fond of him.  We know that not only are we not allowed to steal items, but we also are commanded to return lost objects to their rightful owners, showing that we must go the extra mile for our fellow Jew.  So how does this responsibility relate to Jewish slavery?  Slavery is the punishment for neglecting this responsibility.  A Jew becomes a slave only when he steals and is unable to repay his debt to the one he stole from.  In addition, there is a deeper message to a Jew becoming a slave.  The slave is being punished in two different ways.  Not only is he being physically punished, but he also is being ostracized from the community, because we see that he cannot be part of the community due to his lack of responsibility for fellow Jews.  Hence, Parashat Mishpatim’s opening with the laws of slavery is a very appropriate introduction to the general theme of Arvut (responsibility for each other) that runs throughout the Parasha.

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