On Slavery. A discussion of the Torah portion with Rabbi Berkman

Rabbi Berkman is a rabbi for Mesorah DC and leads this weekly discussion of the Torah portion.

There won’t be too many blog entries that I could probably end after one word and generate enough conversation to carry us through the week and well beyond. The very idea of slavery strikes cords of thought and emotion in many of us.

The bottom line is that the Torah introduces the institution; therefore it is incumbent on us to explore what it is all about.

In this week’s portion, Mishpatim, the Torah discusses laws pertaining to how people relate to each other. We learn about responsibility for monetary damages, injury, lending and borrowing, and much more. The first case that we are introduced to, however, is that of a slave and the process of his release. Our commentators explain that the slave in question stole property and was unable to make repayment.  The court orders the thief to sell himself as a slave to the injured party in order to pay off the debt.

Why is slavery the first relationship addressed in the portion?, Many of the cases we come across in the parsha are more pleasant and even easier to deal with than slavery is. Why not start by telling us about the person who does kindness, or about the person who returns a lost object?  What is it about the case of slavery that induces God, in the Torah, to begin the list of laws pertaining to a person and his neighbor?  The slavery case almost seems to be an introduction to all inter-relational laws that follow.

Chew on it. Let me know what you think. Check back in a few days to see where this conversation goes. And please, have a wonderful week!


Thank you to everyone who joined us at Mesorah DC’s Friday night Shabbat service and dinner. I hope you all enjoyed the evening as much as I did. It was great to see so many new faces along with all of our old friends. Please stop in Monday night for Café Night with Mesorah DC. Starts @ 7 @ 6&I.  Chinese dinner at 7:45!

1 reply
  1. Will G
    Will G says:

    Interesting and provacitive question!

    One possibility that comes to mind is the idea that Hashem may be dealing with the issue of slavery first in order to teach that the Jewish people must first and foremost understand that they must be slaves to Hashem’s will and approach all the other laws accordingly. I know this is not an easy pill to swallow for a lot of people and it sounds ugly from a superficial viewpoint. I certainly could be wrong in connecting this idea to this topic.

    On an interesting note – this may answer Stephen’s question from last week – Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch states that beginning the “Mosaic legislation” with the laws of slaves best illustrates the authenticity of the Oral Law. He goes on to say that while the laws deal with personal rights, they begin with discussing the situation of selling a person into slavery. Such situations are exceptional, yet the law begins with these. Not suprising when one considers that when Moshe turned over the book (written Torah) to the people, the Law had already been impressed upon them over a period of 40 yrs. Says Hirch: “We will then understand that in fact the “book” does not record legal principles at all, but primarily individual, concrete cases in point. And it does so in such an instructive manner that we can easily derive from these cases the principles that were entrusted to the living spirit of the people.” In other words, the Torah focuses an inordinate amount of attention to exceptional cases, because they teach us much about what to do in more common situations. The Torah was also written this way to help the student of Torah more easily recall the concepts and laws passed down orally.

    A big piece of evidence for Hirsch’s claim is the fact that the beginning of this week’s parsha provides us with the bedrock of much of the Oral Law. According to my Rosh Yeshiva, about 4 or 5 popularly studied masechtas of Talmud including Bava Metzia and Makkos are largely based on the first two aliyahs of this week’s parsha.


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