Exercising Power with Justice and Compassion

Rabbi Reuven Mann

A major them of this week’s Parsha, Mishpatim, is the manner in which a true Torah Jew, is expected to treat others. The opening subject of the Parsha is that of the Eved Ivri (Jewish Slave/Servant). He is not an actual slave, but is bound to cater to the needs of the “master” much like a butler or a valet.

One can become a Jewish Servant, by either being sold by the court or by selling oneself. The court can sell him, when he has committed a theft and lacks the funds to make restitution. The Torah eschews corporal punishment or incarceration for strictly monetary crimes. Rather, the thief is required to provide compensation. In some cases, he is fined an additional amount beyond the principal, so that stealing should not come to be regarded as a risk-free endeavor.

Therefore, all a robber must do according to Jewish Law, is pay back the amount he has heisted. It is only in the instance that he can’t come up with the funds, that the Beit Din (Court) is permitted to sell him to another Jew, as a Jewish Servant. The money obtained in this transaction, may be used to compensate the victim of the theft.

The institution of “slavery” is designed with great compassion. The master is beholden to the needs of the servant. He can’t overwork or mistreat him, nor enjoy comforts that are not provided to the servant. Thus, if there is only one pillow available, it goes to the Eved; to avoid the master indulging a higher lifestyle than his worker. He also assumes the servant’s financial obligations to his wife and small children. The Rabbis famously said, in tractate Kiddushin 20a, “whoever acquires a Jewish Servant it is as though he acquires a master for himself.” Such is the extent of Jewish Rachmanut (compassion).

There is more to the intriguing story of the Jewish servant. A person can enter into this institution voluntarily, by selling himself because of extreme poverty. It is better for him to accept a lowly position, than to become so destitute that he is tempted to steal. But the Torah, clearly, does not view this situation as desirable. The term of service, is limited to six years; after which, if he wants to stay, he must have a hole drilled through his ear. This, is to remind him, that he is departing from the Torah ideal; as the Talmud states in Bava Metzia 10a, “For unto Me are the Children of Israel servants, they are My servants… (VaYikra 25:55) but not servants to servants.”

A very strange law makes its appearance in the institution of Eved Ivri. If the master possesses a gentile female slave—who, though not Jewish, is bound to keep the positive commandments that are not dependent on time—he may give her to his servant as a wife, in order to have children. They will bear the status of slaves and belong to the master.

In order to appreciate the significance of this law, we must recognize that an ordinary Jew is prohibited from marrying or even having conjugal relations with a gentile maidservant. Yet, in this case, this very significant sexual prohibition has been removed – thereby allowing the master to give his servant a wife – in order to provide the master with more slaves, from the offspring.

But what about the religious well-being of the servant? Certainly the Torah doesn’t want him to deviate from the Mitzvot during the time of his service! What is the rationale for this very strange dispensation?

In dealing with this issue, we must note that the condition of furnishing a gentile charwoman as a wife, is only available regarding a Jewish servant, whom the court has sold because of his crime. One who sells himself due to poverty, is prohibited from entering into a marriage with the gentile slavewoman. What is the reason for this difference?

In my opinion, the Torah’s judicial treatment of monetary crimes, is rooted in its absolute commitment to the principles of justice. Whatever the burglar stole, must be repaid – sometimes with an additional fine – so that he suffer some loss for his crime. If he cannot make payment, he must enter the jurisdiction of a master, in order to make some kind of restitution.

Why does the Torah allow the master to give him a gentile maidservant to bear him children? The answer may be found in the words of the Torah. “If his master will give him a woman and she bears him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out by himself. (Shemot 21:4)”

The entire purpose of giving him a wife and his having children with her, is that they shall be taken away from him. The governing philosophy behind this regulation is, that if a person cannot empathize with the hurt of another person, it is vital for his rehabilitation, that he experience the same pain he visited upon his victim.

The individual in question, stole money, and was thus insensitive to the financial loss of his victim. In accordance with the principle of “measure for measure”, he must endure the experience of what it is like when something he has become attached to i.e. his wife and the children he sired—who are not actually his legally, because they are from a non-Jewish mother—are taken away from him. He thus learns to respect the ownership rights of all people.

It therefore makes sense, that this provision to marry a gentile charwoman, is not permitted in the case of the one who sold himself, due to poverty. He committed no theft. Therefore, there is no need for the remedial act of taking the woman and children from him.

We thus see, the Torah’s method of dealing with criminals. Punishment is meted out; but it is wholly based on the principle of justice, and the desire to enable the individual to overcome his moral defect, and function as a productive member of society. Additionally, the Torah insists, that the master be fully cognizant of the need to preserve the servant’s dignity and revitalize his self-esteem.

We must internalize these lessons and seek to emulate the Ways of our Creator. We must seek to treat all people with consideration and sensitivity; and when punishment is necessary it should be meted out with great wisdom, justice and compassion. This constitutes a unique manifestation of the great Mitzvah to “love your friend as yourself.”

Shabbat Shalom.