One of my favourite Shabbat readings is by the writer Francine Klagsbrun. She tells the story of her father and his love for Shabbat as a miracle. Her father was totally in awe of the concept of Shabbat: ‘“When I was a young man, an immigrant from Russia,” he would say, “the United States had no labor laws regulating working conditions. People worked long hours, seven days a week, without rest. But imagine, more than three thousand years ago the Bible commanded that all work stop for an entire day every single week, and not only for the ancient Israelites but for all who lived among them, including slaves. And not only for people, but for animals as well. What a revolutionary practice that was. What a miracle!”’
I love the vision of Shabbat as a revolutionary practice. As he emphasised, the revolution was not just a day of rest, but the fact that it includes every member of society, especially slaves and animals.
In last week’s Torah portion we all stood at Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments, including the Shabbat command, directly from God. Every single member of the community heard the word of God and received the commandments. This week in Mishpatim the law giving proceeds at a pace with a portion full of rules for the Israelite community.
This law code could start anywhere. It could begin with more of the rules relating to our relationship with God, or it could build on the prohibitions elaborated in the Ten Commandments. Mishpatim goes in a completely different direction, and begins with the laws about acquiring a Hebrew slave.
Traditionally people were born into slavery, and they died as slaves. Here it specifies: ‘When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he will work for six years, and in the seventh year he will go free with no payment’ (Exodus 21:2). After being freed from bondage in Egypt no-one is to be condemned to a life of slavery of slavery ever again. If the Hebrew slave wishes to reject his freedom, a ritual is undertaken which involves the nailing of his ear to the doorpost of his master’s house, which leaves him as a slave for life (Exodus 21:6).
The Hebrew slave’s rights, building on his right to a day of rest (Shabbat), are revolutionary.
The rules relating to the Hebrew slave are significant, but the position of this law seems even more important. Following the Ten Commandments our law code begins with the rules relating to the Hebrew slave. Mishpatim begins with the lowest membership class in society, and mandates not just for their protection, but also their guaranteed elevation from their restricted status. The Torah teaches us that there is no point in worrying about society as a whole until the weakest members of society are protected with their rights assured.
Throughout the Torah we are constantly reminded: ‘You were slaves in Egypt’. We, who have experienced life as slaves, should know better than others about how the lowest members of society should be treated and protected. Every year on Passover we remind ourselves that we were slaves, so that we will treat others with the memory of our own persecution and suffering.
The Shabbat is revolutionary. The laws relating to the Hebrew slave are revolutionary. And the structure of our law code is revolutionary. Mishpatim guarantees the rights for the lowest members of society before concerning itself with the rest of the community.
As we read Mishpatim and are reminded of these ancient laws, we can shine a light onto our own society. Who are protected by the laws we hold dear? Who are the modern day ‘slaves’ who require our help and protection? And how can we reconnect with the revolution of Mishpatim to help and improve our own society?