Friday, February 13, 2015

Don't Touch That Dial! - Reflections on Parashat Mishpatim 5775

(For an earlier blog post on Mishpatim, click HERE.)

Up till now, the Torah's narrative has been intense, dramatic, emotional: the Creation of the Universe, the Great Flood, the lives of the Patriarchs, the vicious enslavement of Joseph and his meteoric rise to Viceroy of Egypt, slavery and the Ten Plagues, the Parting of the Sea, the Revelation at SInai. Woof! What a ride! It's the kind of heady stuff that captures your imagination and keeps you glued to your seat.

But in Parashat Mishpatim, the Torah abruptly changes gears and deals with dry matters of law. Damages. Torts. Booooring!! Where's the passion? Where's the plot? Where's the conflict? So (true confessions) Mishpatim is where many people sort of...tune out, eyes glazing over. Ready to turn the dial to another channel. 

Consider the first case in our Parasha, the laws of owning a Jewish slave. We moderns shake our heads at these laws. Slavery? The entire civilized world has condemned slavery. A thing of the past, you'll tell me. Barbaric. How can these laws possibly have anything to say to modernity? Moving on.

But hold on to your hats: I'm about to argue that the Jewish laws of slavery are directly and immediately relevant and applicable to our lives, so don't touch that dial quite yet.

It is true that de jure slavery - the institution that permitted a human being to be the property of, and wholly subject to, another - has thankfully passed from this earth, or at least from open view. But there are other, less egregious, forms of slavery. Political slavery, for example. Or economic slavery.

A person working three part-time jobs just to make ends meet, because employers can no longer afford the onerous payroll burden of carrying full-timers - that person is a de facto slave. Part-time employees, in whom only a bare minimum of training or skill development is invested, who are treated as disposable - those people are economic slaves. An employee who can't speak freely for fear of being fired is a slave. 

The working poor are America's most vulnerable underclass, no different than coal miners or piece workers in the needle trades a century ago. (Right now, you are probably wearing clothes make by someone in a third-world country working for about a dollar a day.) And like the slaves of yore, today's workers are grateful for the few crumbs they are thrown, because they are all too aware that many have even less.

The threat of job loss is a form of slavery through economic intimidation, because you are wholly subject to the whims of another human being. Being economically dependent on another is a form of slavery, because your personal autonomy has been effectively stripped from you. "Work or starve" is not a meaningful choice.

Now I'm not going all Che Guevara on you, I'm simply trying to disabuse you of the notion that slavery doesn't exist in the United States of America today. 

And it was to this kind of slavery which Rav Avraham Isaac HaCohen Kook was referring when he said that slavery is part of the human condition. 

Whether we like it or not, slavery exists, and since it exists, the Torah deals with it, insisting that it be humane, limited, regulated; that the slave be given rights under the law; that his servitude is a form of indenture for which he is entitled to compensation. The Torah's conception of limited slavery was a method of economic rehabilitation through which the servant could learn a trade at the side of his master, and upon his emancipation in six years (or less), be self-supporting. 

And how could a Jew become a slave to another Jew anyway? In only one of two ways: either, due to his desperate circumstances, by offering himself into servitude in exchange for room and board, or else a thief who cannot make restitution is sold to his victim to repay his debt through labor. A thief, who stole out of dire necessity. Do you see any passion here? The conflict behind the law? 

The verse later states, "And when you lend money to My people, the poor in your midst, don't constantly dun them for payment..." (Shmot/Exodus 22:24) Rashi states that "Gcd's people" are defined by the next phrase: the poor, the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the disadvantaged. "Gcd is close to the brokenhearted, and those who have had their spirits crushed, He saves." (Psalms 34) "The outcry of the poor You surely hear; the moans of the indigent You pay close attention to, and save them."

The grand, unifying theme throughout all the 53 laws laid down in our Parasha is how we, as individuals, must treat the poor. We dare not avert our eyes to their plight, or leave it to others to deal with it. Not to be treated as pitiable charity cases, but whenever possible, helping them grow out of slavery and into more productive, more enriching, more ennobling work.

That is why the Parasha opens with a case deliberately designed to shock us out of our complacency: a person so desperate, he is willing to ransom his very liberty for a mere crust of bread. 

It's easy to profess love of Gcd, to declare from the mountaintops your belief in the Ten Commandments which immediately precede our verses. But if you truly wish to "Seek out Gcd where He is to be found," Parashat Mishpatim gives you a pretty strong hint where to look. 

Shabbat Shalom.

No comments:

Post a Comment