Friday, February 13, 2015

civil law and the source of human rights

1) Why does the Torah place open its discussion of civil law with the idea of eved ivri?  Why not talk about theft, propertly law, shomrim, etc,. all of which seem more common and more basic to establishing a just society than the laws of someone sold into slavery as a result of not being able to pay his debts?  And then there is the term “eved ivri” itself: Rashi already notes that it’s a confusing phrase – does it mean a slave (even non-Jewish) owned by a Jewish master, or does it mean the slave himself is Jewish?  Rashi has to connect the pasuk of “ki tikneh eved ivri” to another pasuk in Devarim of “ki yimacheir lecha achicha ha’ivri” to clarify and derive that it is in fact talking about a slave who is Jewish.  I was studying Chumash (a different parsha) with my youngest daughter a week or so ago and she asked a great question: if the Torah means what Rashi says, why doesn’t the Torah itself say so clearly?  We could ask the same question here: why does the Torah opt for the longer, more ambiguous phrase of “eved ivri” that requires a peirush Rashi to unravel instead of just simply saying “ivri,” which is both shorter and leaves no doubt that it means someone who is Jewish?  Lastly, the introduction of “ki tikneh eved ivri,” “When you acquire a Jewish slave…” seems unnecessary.  We are not discussing the laws of kinyanim here; we are discussing when and how the slave goes free.  The fact that the slave had to have been bought seems redundant and irrelevant to the main point of the parsha.  Why does the Torah bother to mention it?

When we hear the word “slavery” we immediately think of whippings, discrimination, perhaps even torture.  But this is not the concept of slavery the Torah speaks about in our parsha.  I would bet that if people went through the laws of avadim they might even find that they would be willing to trade their jobs with the job of being an eved because of the protections and security built into the system.  Why is the Torah’s concept of slavery so different than the concept we think of?  “Ki li Bnei Yisrael avadim” – Hashem has declared that we are his servants.  A Jew is not hefker.  We are responsible to Hashem, but by the same token, Hashem as our master looks after our interests as well. The Alshich explains that this is the meaning behind the phrase “eved ivri.”  Torah tells the potential slave master up front that when he buys a slave, what he is buying is an someone who already is indentured, someone who is already an “eved” and belongs to a Higher authority than their own.  There are limits to what can be done to the Jewish slave because ownership is not absolute – it must answer to a prior claim, to the real “owner” of every ivri, namely G-d.  Without that extra phrase “eved,” the entire moral thrust of the parsha is missing. 
It’s this concept of “ki li Bnei Yisrael avadim” which is the backbone for the entire parsha of Mishpatim and therefore serves as its first chapter.  Just this past week a news anchor declared that “our rights do not come from G-d,” something that would have been news to the founding fathers of the USA.  More importantly for us, it is a mistake the reveals the chasm between the Torah’s idea of rights, which do stem from G-d, from “ki li Bnei Yisrael avadim,” and the idea of rights in other cultures and societies. 

2) In an earlier post I wrote that the eved ivri is pierced only if he chooses to stay on with his master and not at the time that he chooses to sell himself because at the time he made the choice to become an eved he may not have known what he is getting himself into.  If after experiencing avdus he still hasn’t learned the lesson, then he deserves to be punished.  The Sefas Emes raises an objection: shouldn’t the choice to remain an eved be a less serious offense considering that the eved has gotten used to the situation and become habituated to it?  “Ahavti es adoni v’es ishti v’es banay…”  For better or worse, the slave is comfortable where he is and doesn’t welcome change. 
The answer is that it’s this habituation to being a slave that is exactly what we are punishing!  To say that one is comfortable being an eved only proves how low and degraded the individual has allowed himself to become. 

3) Let me end off with something about shekalim.  I don’t think there is a charity in the world that would turn away donations, yet that’s exactly what the Torah seems to suggest: “he’ashir lo yarbeh v’ha’dal lo yamit,” the rich can’t give more than a half a shekel and the poor can’t give less.  Shouldn’t the person who wants to give be encouraged, not turned away?

Some organizations send letters where you can just check a box to confirm the amount you want to give.  What’s interesting is the scale of the donations you can choose from on these letters: you have your organizations where the lowest amount is something like $18, but then you have the organizations where the lowest amount is $100 and it goes up exponentially from there.  It’s either a deliberate ploy to try to get a higher amount or it just doesn’t occur to them that some people may not have $100 to plunk down.  In either case, when you get that letter, you feel what’s the point of checking the box that says “other” and sending in your $18 – that’s clearly not what they are interested in.  The same idea holds true for shekalim. Imagine if when the shekalim were collected the first gut stepped forward with a huge  sack of money, the next guy has an even bigger sack, and then along comes a guy like me with a half shekel – I would just turn around and go home.  Why bother when clearly it’s the big rollers who are managing the whole show?  So the Torah says there is one box to check here: half a shekel.  Everyone can pitch in equally.
But what about the guy who is so motivated, who wants to give more?  The Sefas Emes says a brilliant answer: that individual is giving, and what he is giving is worth more than his dollars – he is giving others the opportunity to have a share and participate. He is giving part of “his” mitzvah to the tzibur so that everyone can have a chance.  That’s no less a form of generosity than writing a bigger check, and sometimes it's an even harder mitzvah to do.

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