Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
The Gift of Freedom
The Parasha this week is Mishpatim, considered the beginning of what is called the "Book of the Covenant." Portrayed as being instructed by God to Moses while still on Mount Sinai, the Book of the Covenant is really the first set of detailed Torah legislation. It includes laws on how to treat slaves and the penalty for various crimes. All of these laws are meant to provide a structure for the newly forming Israelite society. We must remember that the people had only known slavery throughout their whole lives and now they must be taught the rules and regulations of a free society. Without these they might assume that freedom was equivalent to anarchy and havoc would ensue (just think of the Golden Calf incident which takes place while Moses is still on Sinai receiving all of these laws).
In reading these laws it has always fascinated me that the first law is concerning how they are to treat a Hebrew slave. How strange that one of the first regulations for a newly freed people would be how to treat their own slaves! One would think the text would state unequivocally that slavery was not to be permitted or that this would be the last thing on the people's minds.
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