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Jewish Slavery

Written by Rabbi Dovid Wachs.

Parshas Mishpatim

This Parsha devotes the first eleven verses to the buying and selling of Jewish servants.  How can we understand this?   How can the same Torah which promotes the dignity of man condone human slavery?

Indeed, without our Oral Law, we would misunderstand this section of the Torah.  A massive amount of legal principles and detailed laws were given by G-d orally to Moshe who taught them to the Jewish people.  They were only written down later as the Talmud as a result of the Roman occupation and exile.  As the Jewish people dispersed, the access to these oral teachings was going to be limited and so the sages wrote these teachings down.

 The relationship of the Five Books of Moshe to the Oral Law is beautifully explained by Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch in his brilliant commentary to the Torah. 

"This Book (the Five Books of Moshe) was not intended as a primary source of the Law.  It was meant for those who were already well-versed in the Law, to use as a means of retaining and reviving, ever anew, the knowledge that they had already committed to memory.  It was intended as a teaching aid for teachers of the Law, as a reference to confirm the Oral Law, so that the students should find it easy, with the aid of the Written text before them, to reproduce in their minds, ever anew, the knowledge they had received by word of mouth.

The relationship between the Written Law and the Oral Law is like that between brief written notes taken on a scientific lecture and the lecture itself.  Students who attended the oral lecture require only their brief notes to recall at any time the entire lecture.  They often find that a word, a question mark, an exclamation mark, a period, or the underscoring of a word is sufficient to bring to mind a whole series of ideas, observations, qualifications, and so forth.  But for those who did not attend the instructor's lecture, these notes are not of much use.  If they try to reconstruct the lecture solely from these notes, they will of necessity make many errors."

 A simple example of this is "an eye for an eye" in Exodus 21:24.  Without the Oral Law, we might think that we punish someone who cuts out someone else's eye by cutting out his eye but the Oral Law teaches us that the punishment is only a financial one; we assess the monetary value of the eye and require the perpetrator to pay that to the victim.

 Likewise, concerning buying servants, the Oral Law explains who these servants are.  They are not "slaves."  They are simply "workers" (Avadim) who have stolen something and do not have the money or items to return.  The court sells him to raise the funds needed to pay back the victim. He will work as a hired worker for a family for no more than six years.  If during this time, he or his family or friends can find the money equal to the theft, they can pay the owner and free this worker.

This servant has to be treated with great respect; he cannot be forced to do harsh labor or demoralizing labor like taking off the owner's shoes, or even carrying his clothes to the bathhouse.  He can't be forced to work without good reason.  If the servant gets sick and cannot work for the majority of the six year period ( up to four years) those four years are included in the six year period and the worker is not required to make up the time later.

The owner must supply all of his material needs and comforts as well as those of the servant's wife and family.  He eats the same food as the owner.  If the owner eats fresh bread, he must give the worker the same.  If the owner drinks aged wine, he must give the worker the same.  The owner must give him the same type of bedding as he has. And more so, if the owner has only one pillow, he must give it to the servant instead of himself.  The Gemara sums up this arrangement by saying, " Whoever buys a Jewish servant, it is like he has bought a master over himself."

 And let us remember that we are speaking about a thief who either cannot pay or who doesn't want to pay back what he stole, not the most exemplary character around.

Instead of throwing this criminal in jail to be with other criminals, the Torah has a system in which he is rehabilitated.  By living with a family, he will be influenced by their positive moral character.  He will experience the honor and dignity given to him, and will hopefully change his corrupt ways.

 This is just a glimpse of the necessity of our Oral Law and its teachings.  Without them we would grossly misunderstand this and many other passages in the Torah.  

Have A Good Shabbos!


Fusion Food for the Spirit

Written by Rabbi Dovid Wachs.

Parshas Yisro

Being that the Ten Commandments are given in this week's Parsha, it would appear that Parshas Yisro must be the most important one in the entire Torah.   But this is not so.  Observant Jews have always believed that the entire Torah, not just the Ten Commandments, to be of Divine origin.

The Rambam (Maimonides) in fact criticizes the practice of Jews standing up when the Ten Commandments are read in shul.  Why should they stand more for the Ten Commandments than for any other part of the Torah?  Doing so implies that they have more holiness or authority than the rest of the Torah when they do not.  (Our practice, however, is follow other views and we do stand).

Furthermore, the Talmud says that different sages wanted to put the Ten Commandments in the Siddur to be recited along along with the "Shma Yisroel" but other sages opposed it for fear that heretics would claim that this proves that only the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai and not the rest of the Torah.

So, just what is the significance of the Ten Commandments then?  Why did G-d give Ten special commandments when in fact there are 613 commandments in the Torah?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, of blessed memory, writes that the Ten Commandments were given at Mt. Sinai in order to prepare the people to receive the entire Torah that would later be taught by G-d to Moshe, who would then teach it to them.

According to this, the purpose of the Ten Commandments was for the people to hear G-d speak to them for the first time as it says in Devarim 5:19, "These words G-d spoke to your entire assemblage on the mountain amidst the fire, the clouds and the darkness, a great voice, never to be repeated..."  It also enabled them to hear G-d speak to Moshe so they would trust Moshe when he taught them the rest of the Torah during their sojourn in the desert as Chapter 19, verse 9 states, "And G-d spoke to Moshe, Behold I am coming to you in a thick cloud so that the people will be able to hear when I speak with you, and then they will also trust you forever".

Rabbi Hirsch explains further that the Ten Commandments can be seen as general categories that contain within them the rest of the 613 mitzvos.   He also adds another beautiful thought.  The Ten Commandments were written as five on the first tablet and five on the second tablet.  The first tablet begins with (1)  "I am the Lord your G-d....", and then, (2) "There should be no other Gods before you".  These two commandments are of the intellect.  But Judaism is not just cerebral, it must lead to proper speech and action. Therefore the next three commandments refer to speech and action: (3) "Do not  swear in G-d's name in vain; (4) "Remember the Shabbos day with positive acts of holiness and refrain from skilled labor," and (5) "Honor your father and mother."  On the second tablet, the next four commandments deal with laws that protect society:  (6)" Do not murder, (7) Do not commit adultery, (8)Do not steal, (9)Do not bear false witness".  But even that is not enough.  We are given one final commandment that might be the hardest:  (10) "Do not covet your friend's possessions," that we have to control  even over our heart's desires and thoughts.

Thus, the Ten Commandments represent a fusion of intellect, speech, action, respect for society, and inner conviction that elevate and refine our relationship with our work, our family, and our society.

Through this examination of the significance of the Ten Commandments, we see that Judaism is not just a "religion", a term which usually implies service of G-d.  Rather, Judaism is a way of life, governed by Halacha as transmitted to us by G-d through Moshe - a way of life that elevates us spiritually and promotes the most harmonious and happiest way of living true to ourselves, to our fellow man, and to our Creator.

Have a Good Shabbos!


Vital Links in the Chain

Written by Rabbi Dovid Wachs.

Parshas Beshalach

Exodus 13:18  "And God turned the people toward the way of the desert to the Sea of Reeds  and the Jewish people went out  "Chamushim" from the land of Egypt."

What is the meaning of the Jews going out "chamushim" from Egypt?  Rashi brings two explanations from the Medrash.  The first is that they left Egypt armed (chamushim)  with weapons in case they had to defend themselves. 

The second explanation translates  "chamushim," as "a fifth," meaning that only one fifth of the Jews left Egypt.  The other 80% chose not to leave, perhaps unwilling to give up their Egyptian idolatry or to risk their lives in journeying to the desert.    They were punished for this and died during the three days of darkness in order that their deaths would go unnoticed by the Egyptians; otherwise the Egyptians would claim that their Gods were taking revenge.

The Torah says that the Jewish men between the ages of 20 and 60 who left Egypt numbered 600,000.  Adding in the younger and older men as well as the women and children, there had to have been a few million Jews in Egypt.   If 4/5th of the people died, this adds to up to about 2.4 million people.   There is actually an opinion in the medrash that "chamushim" signifies that only 1/50th of the Jews left, and another opinion that 1/500th of Jews left.  These opinions would tell us  that many tens of millions of  Jews died during these three days of darkness.

Rav Shimon Schwab, of blessed memory, says that this Medrash cannot be understood this way.   Otherwise, how could the Egyptians not notice that so many Jews had died during this plague?  They would have to see the bodies and be aware of the funerals.

 Furthermore, such a devastating occurrence would have been a much harsher punishment than the ten plagues that struck the Egyptians.

 Rav Schwab explains that really it was only a number of individuals who died during the darkness, but taking into consideration the generations of children who would have been born from these people, the numbers would have been in the millions.

 Rav Schwab bases his approach on a verse in Genesis:  (4:10) that after Kayin killed his brother Hevel, G-d said to him, "What have you done?  The voice of your brother's blood(s) cries out to Me from the ground".  The word for "blood" in the verse is strangely written in the plural.  Rashi quotes the Talmud that says that this is because Kayin did not just kill Hevel, he killed all of the children who would have come from him.

 Similarly, says one Medrash, during the three days of darkness, those Jews who did not merit to be taken out of Egypt could have given birth to millions of Jews in a few generations had they lived.

 The other opinions in the Medrash on the numbers of Jews who died and the numbers who left, might be referring to different lengths of time.

For example, the opinion that one of 50 came out is looking at the time from the Exodus to the building of the first Temple; the second opinion, that one of 500 came out, might be referring to the end of time.

Rav Schwab then brings this approach closer to home by saying that had six million Jews not died in the Holocaust, there would have been tens of millions of Jews alive today, and it is their "blood(s)" that are crying out to G-d from the ground.

 We can see that Rav Schwab is not only explaining a difficult Medrash, he is also teaching us an important lesson about looking beyond ourselves into the future of our people: our actions and our choices now have consequences far into the future.  Thus, for those of us who have children, what can we do now to ensure that our children, our children's children, and future generations of their children will remain as committed and proud Jews?   What can we do to support and strengthen our Jewish institutions now, building a strong foundation for Jewish life, education, and community for the future?

The consequences of our actions and inactions are enormous!  May this thought guide us in our choices.

 Have a Good Shabbos!


Giving Honor to a Rat

Written by Rabbi Dovid Wachs.

Parshas Bo

Shmos ( 11:8)  "And all of your servants will come down to me and bow to me saying, "Leave, you and all the people with you," after that I will leave," And he left Pharaoh in a burning anger."

Moshe stands before Pharaoh and tells him that around Midnight, G-d will strike down every first born Egyptian.  The outcry will be great throughout the land that has no precedent in history or in the future; not one Jew will be harmed and then Moshe says "And all of your servants will come down to me and bow to me..."

Rashi ponders the following question:  Moshe knew that Pharaoh was the first born in his family, and he knew through prophecy that Pharaoh would himself come to him that night to tell the Jews to leave (12:31) so why wasn't Moshe more direct with Pharaoh and say " And YOU will come down to me and bow...instead of only mentioning that his servants would come and bow to him?

Rashi says that Moshe spoke indirectly to Pharaoh as a way of extending honor to him as the King.  It would be a dishonor to the king for Moshe to tell Pharaoh that he himself would come down and bow to him, and so he said "your servants" instead.

This is mind-boggling.  We are speaking about a king who enslaved our people in the cruelest ways, who told midwives to kill every new-born Jewish male, who ordered that new-born babies be thrown into the Nile River.  This was a king who arrogantly refused to humble himself before G-d even in the face of nine miraculous plagues.  The end of the verse above even says that Moshe left Pharaoh in a burning anger at seeing Pharaoh's incredible chutzpah.  How could Moshe give even an iota of honor to such an evil person? 

Perhaps the answer is that Moshe wasn't honoring Pharaoh as an individual, but as the monarch.  He was showing honor to the entity of kingship. Kingship in and of itself is an honorable institution.  (It might be because mortal kingship can lead us to recognition of the ultimate kingship or because a king has the ability to improve his constituent's lives).  It wasn't an honor being given to Pharaoh as a person but as a ruler. 

If we extend this idea further, might we be able to look at our father or mother in the same light? Are they not worthy of honor for no other reason than that they are our parents?  Is Parenthood not an institution worthy of honor?  Although we might have unfortunately a personal conflict with them, this attitude displayed by Moshe might be applied and empower us to behave and talk honorably to them just because they are our parents.  And isn't every person created in the image of G-d: a child or daughter of the King?  If so, how would it be if we looked at every person in this light and extended the same honor to them as we would give to a prince or princess? 

Another insight I had is that Moshe left Pharaoh's presence in anger at seeing his chutzpah.  It is noteworthy that even in such a state of anger, Moshe had the presence of mind to control his emotions and speak in such a respectful way to Pharaoh.

One final insight that we can gain from this verse is that  Moshe felt it would be a dishonor to tell Pharaoh, "YOU will come down to me...."  Often in communication, the word "you" can create distance between people by its condescending and blaming tone.   This can make the other person defensive and hostile in return.   For example, one spouse says to the other, " Why aren't you ever there for me?" or "You never spend any time with me!"  Often this will provoke a defensive and negative reaction from the other.

 Instead, the spouse can say, " I would like you to be there for me," or " I really want to spend more time with you."   The content is the same but it is given in a more vulnerable and less threatening tone.   The same is true with parents and children.  It's much better to use "I" statements then "You" statements.

With these insights of honoring others and communicating our thoughts and feelings to others, we can greatly increase good will and shalom in our relationships!

 Have a Good Shabbos!


Consistency can be harmful

Written by Rabbi Dovid Wachs.

Parshas Va'era

Shmos (9:20-21) “Whoever feared the Almighty among the servants of Pharoah, brought his servants and cattle into their homes.  And whoever didn't care, left his servants and cattle out in the field. "

 Moshe had just warned Pharaoh of the 7th plague, the plague of hail, telling him to gather in his sheep and cattle as any animals left in the fields would be killed by the plague.  The verse above tells us that only those Egyptians who feared G-d brought their animals indoors.

The obvious question is why didn't all of the Egyptians bring their animals indoors?   After all, hadn't they already been punished with six plagues?  Why would they make such an illogical decision and dismiss the likelihood of this ferocious hail falling upon them, a hail that Moshe said would be so heavy, the likes of which had never in history fallen upon Eygpt?  Why not bring the animals and servants indoors just as a precaution?

 Rav Chanoch Leibowitz, of blessed memory, writes that since the Egyptians still refused to allow the Jews to leave Egypt, it would be inconsistent and hypocritical for them to show fear of the hail and make efforts to avoid it. If they wouldn't acknowledge a higher power and let the Jews leave,  how could they acknowledge a higher power and show fear of the plague?

Their refusal to free the Jews was presumably out of fear that this loss of massive slave labor would adversely affect their economy.  Yet this same concern for financial loss should have compelled them to bring their servants and animals indoors during the hail.  But it seems that their need for consistency prevented them from taking this action.

 Although being truthful to ones self is certainly a positive attribute, it can sometimes be distorted and be harmful as with the Egyptians.  Rabbi Leibowitz said that this drive for consistency in our actions can often hurt us.  It can also cripple our spiritual growth.  At times we might want to observe a new mitzvah or intensify a Jewish practice and a subconscious voice from within calls to us, "Who do you think you are?  There is so much that you don't keep, why be hypocritical and take on new mitzvos?  What, you're a tzaddik all of a sudden?"  And so we remain where we are.

Feelings of pride and honor can sometimes feed this drive for consistency.  If we sincerely have a desire to grow and are humble enough to acknowledge where we are, we can be free to utilize every opportunity for growth.

 Have a Good Shabbos!