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Parashat Mishpatim: Lessons for Recently Liberated Slaves

Jews were slaves in Egypt, and, following the Exodus, held slaves themselves. Eitan Cooper,  the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Schechter Institutes, differentiates between these two types of enslavement. He compares this to modern understandings of employment and obligation. Where can we find true contentment? In obligation or in personal fulfilment?

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I want to dedicate my Shavua Tov message this week to the memory of Prof. Eliezer Schweid, who passed away last week. Prof. Schweid was a giant philosopher and educator, inspiring generations of students. His teachings on the meaning of Zionism for the Jewish people, culturally and politically, have inspired me throughout my life. His assertion that all Jewish-Israelis, regardless of their religious identity, must be educated in their Jewish heritage, was an incredibly important insight on which he not only wrote and lectured, but also acted with determination. In addition to the many books he published, Prof. Schweid’s legacy lives in the revolutionary educational institutions in which he was a founding teacher, among them the Kerem Teachers’ Seminar, The Pardes Institute and of course the Schechter Institute!

Mishpatim, or “judgements” are complex structures, weighing principles against each other to produce law. Take for example, principles of personal freedom and obligation. Both are necessary conditions for living well in modern society, but they live in tension – within society and within the soul.  Finding a balance between them in law is critical to the well-being of a democratic nation and its citizens.

The tension appears in the first judgement given to the Israelites in our Parasha, which lays down laws for the institution of slavery in ancient Israel. The description of a slave’s condition is so far removed from the cruel and immoral institution from which the Israelites just escaped as to make us wonder why the term “slave” is used at all. A Hebrew slave served his master for six years, after which the master had to free him. A parallel passage in Leviticus forbids the master to work him harshly (befarech), evoking a clear condemnation of Egyptian slavery. There is one critical exception to the command of freeing the slave: a slave whose wife belongs to his master’s household, and who declares his love for his master and family may choose to remain. This decision was voluntary, and was made official in a ceremony that conclude in the piercing of the slave’s ear. My reading of these verses is that the piercing did not necessarily diminish the slave’s status – and perhaps just the opposite, in the same way as a brit milah (circumcision) is a permanent bodily mark of membership in a unique Covenantal community, the piercing marked a choice to become a permanent member of the household.

This leads me to think that perhaps the piercing ceremony was really the norm and holds meaning for us even today. How many young adults start out by taking a job to get experience or hone skills, to build their CV, but having arrived alone for a new job in new surroundings, in time meet their soulmate, befriend coworkers, and grow attached to their workplace and loyal to a decent employer? After a few years, in a professional setting, they make “partner” or are “tenured”, marking a more permanent relationship. Perhaps some people will not develop permanent attachments and leave after a few years, remaining free agents to pursue their life and career dreams, but like the Hebrew slaves, many others remain voluntarily, having decided along the way that their new ties are the kind that bind.

In Tractate Menahot p. 43, the Talmudic Sages taught three blessings to recite each morning at dawn “Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the World” 1) “who did not make me a non-Jew”, 2) “who did not make me a slave”, 3) “who did not make me a woman”. For the first blessing, the Sage Rabbi Meir used an alternative formulation “who made me an Israelite” which is often found today in liberal Siddurim, alongside two other positive formulations “who made me a free person” and “who made me according to his will”. This emphasizes our autonomy and identity as the overriding blessings of our lives, but most of the Sages preferred the negative formulation, because to them, what non-Jews, Hebrew slaves and women shared in common, was that there was no requirement that they observe all the Mitzvot, whereas Jewish men were obligated to observe all of them. That obligation is what best defined, for our Sages, the most meaningful life.

So read in this way, both the beginning of  Parashat Mishpatim and the discussion in Tractate Menahot lead us to the same fundamental question: is the ultimate meaning of our lives going to be manifest the pursuit of personal fulfillment, or is it found in the obligations that we assume? The answer is complex and intimate, not black or white, and our ability to resolve the tension, to find the right balance between these principles, will be the bottom line of a life well-lived. 

Shavua Tov from Schechter.

Eitan Cooper is the former Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. From January 1, 2024, he is a part-time consultant at Schechter. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.

Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.

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