Letting Our People Go

Bringing Us All Out of Egypt.

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This law, in the end, is not really about permission to keep slaves. In its historical time, the Torah presumed a society where there were slaves, who had sold themselves because of debts or poverty. The law emphasizes instead the freeing. The very first thing these former slaves are being told is not to become like their Egyptian oppressors. They are being told to free their slaves--not only to offer freedom, but to sing it loud, to pull out all the stops, even to the point of creating a mini-drama about oppression and freedom.

Lessons Are Useful Today

The lesson is the same for our time and our society. We do not own slaves anymore, but as a society we tolerate oppression and participate in it. We tolerate a two-tiered society, where some have access to education and encouragement, to wealth and the means to make it, and others far less so. We tolerate the attitudes that let this continue--the lazy stereotypes about people of different colors and about "the poor," the lazy fatalist feeling that there are no real solutions. This is, in our time, what it means to buy and keep a slave of our own people.

The Torah commands us, living today, to free the oppressed around us. To set a limit to the time we are willing to tolerate the inequities and injustices before we rid ourselves of slavery. The first law set down by the God who brought us out of slavery is to go back, split the sea, and rescue those for whom life among us is still life in Egypt.

The law of the Hebrew slave freed in the seventh year begins the law code of Mishpatim. The code ends with a final series of laws, and the laws that open that this final section each evoke and extend one aspect of the law of the slave. "Do not oppress the stranger--because you know what it is like to be a slave. Six years you shall sow the land and gather its produce, but in the seventh you shall let it rest--so that your wealth belongs for one year to the needy."

And finally, "six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor." It is significant that Shabbat, the command to rest each week in celebration of our own freedom, is at the end of the list. Only when the strangers are welcome does our freedom have any meaning. Only when the hungry are fed does Shabbat, the pinnacle of Jewish spiritual life, have any significance.

And it works the other way, too--Shabbat is a daylong meditation on the responsibilities of free people in a society not yet rid of the suffering made by human beings. We must enter each new week like the master in Mishpatim, unsatisfied to see that suffering continues, blood on the door but the people still trapped inside.

The Blessed Holy One went first--"I am Adonai your God, the One who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slaves." The laws of Mishpatim teach us to go next, to keep on going, to be like God, so that we too can say that we have brought every last person out of Egypt, out of the house of slaves.

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Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett

Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett is the founder and director of MACHAR, a national project in the United States involving Jewish youth in service that promotes self-sufficiency and economic empowerment and in study of Jewish and American "texts" on wealth, success, and social responsibility.