Parshas Va’eira

Parshas Va’eira
Free to be Slaves


F R E E  to be  S L A V E S

Of all the mitzvosthat Hashem could have chosen to be the first one given to B’nei Yisroel by their new leader Moshe, a law setting a limit on the length of time a master could own his Hebrew slave does not seem to be the most likely candidate; the honor going to a mitzvah seemingly more fundamental. Yet, according to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah 3:5) the law of ‘shiluach avadim‘ (sending away one’s slave) was exactly that, the first commandment given by Moshe to the Jews. 

The Pasuk states, “Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aaron and commanded them to the B’nei Yisroel and to Pharaoh King of Egypt to take the B’nei Yisroel out of the land of Egypt.” (Shmos 6:13) What exactly did Hashem command Moshe and Aaron in regard to the B’nei Yisroel? That detail is conspicuously missing from the narrative. Quoting R’ Shmuel the son of R’ Yitzchok, the Talmud Yerushalmi states that Hashem commanded Moshe and Aaron to teach B’nei Yisroel the laws of shiluach avadim.
The source of the Yerushalmi may be the words of Jeremiah (34:13,14) which when translated literally imply just that: “I sealed a covenant with your forefathers on the day I took them out of the land of Egypt from the house of slaves saying; At the outset of the seventh year each of you shall send forth his Hebrew brother who will have been sold to you, he shall serve you for six years and then you shall send him forth free from yourself….”

What is the

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This presents an obvious difficulty: What about this law renders it of such paramount significance? After all, the Torah’s laws regarding the owning of a Jewish servants would only take effect after B’nei Yisroel had entered the Land of Israel (Eirachin 29a). So what can possibly have been the urgency for this law’s immediate communication? In addition, from the context, one gets the impression that Hashem’s commandment to Moshe with regard to Pharaoh and the one with regard to the Jewish People are in some sense parallel. Let us explore how that may be so. 

Certainly, a straightforward explanation to answer these questions would be to suggest the following. In order to merit the redemption from slavery – or in appreciation of that redemption – the Jews had to accept upon themselves the sympathetic treatment of their own future slaves. However, this answer begs the question. In quite a few places the Torah commands us to treat the down-trodden of society fairly and our bitter experience in Egypt is often cited as a reason for those commandments (see Shemos 22:20, see also Ramban Shemos 13:16). Why should Hashem single out this particular law now? A more satisfying answer is called for. 

The Torah states, “For they are My servants whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold in the manner of a slave.” (Vayikrah 25:42) A similar statement is found later on: “For the B’nei Yisroel are servants to Me, they are My servants whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt…” (Vayikrah 25:55) The implication is clear that the Exodus is not to be viewed as our extrication from bondage to freedom, but rather as our transfer – in a spiritual sense – from being servants to Pharaoh to being servants of Hashem. The Gemara states (Megilah 14a) regarding the recital of Hallel in commemoration of the Exodus that the verse “Give praise, you servants of Hashem!” (Psalms 113) is saying that we are now servants of Hashem as opposed to Pharaoh. 

The Talmud in Kiddushin 22b understands that this master-slave relationship that we have with Hashem has a direct connection to the Torah law which requires a master to allow his Hebrew slave to go free after six years of servitude. The Torah requires that a Jewish slave must have his ear pierced if he chooses to remain with his master instead of taking advantage of the freedom afforded to him by this law. Rabban Shimon the son of Rebbi said, “Why was the piercing done specifically by the door or doorpost? G-d is saying: the door and doorpost which witnessed My passing over you in Egypt, and [at that time] I said ‘For B’nei Yisroel are servants to Me…’ – and not servants to [those who are themselves] servants. I took them out from bondage to freedom, and nonetheless he (the slave) acquired a master for himself, [his ear] shall be pierced before them (the door and doorpost).” 

This statement by Rabban Shimon quite clearly demonstrates that servitude to another human being is at its core a violation of one of the basic principles of the Exodus. The law of shiluach avadim teaches us that Hashem does not want a Jew to remain in a position of servitude to anyone except Him. For the B’nei Yisroel are servants to Me… – and not servants to servants.   

There was nothing more important for Klal Yisroel to hear from Moshe Rabeinu at the very beginning of the process of Exodus than this concept – that their soon-to-be freedom from the bondage of Egypt will obligate them in serving Hashem. It is then no surprise that when Hashem commanded Moshe to go to Pharoah, thereby beginning the process of Exodus, he also commanded Moshe to communicate to Klal Yisroel the laws of shiluach avadim, making perfectly clear the scheme within which the Exodus was to take place. 

Thus far, our discussion has remained for the most part conceptual. However, Jewish monetary law derives some very practical applications from this concept. The Hagos Mordechai (see Choshen Mishpat 333:3, Rema and Sh”ach) states, “…from this principle [that servitude to another man contradicts our servitude to Hashem] …a person should be careful not to hire himself out in a way which obligates him to be constantly at the service of his employer, living in his employer’s house and being supported by him [in order to be available for him around the clock] for an uninterrupted period of more than three years, because committing oneself to this type of work for more than a three year period is no longer considered a term of employment, but rather, a term of a kind of slavery.” Live-in maids, private chauffeurs, full-time nannies or butlers, and full-time personal secretaries are all modern-day examples of ‘slave-like employment,’ and according to the Hagos Mordechai, one should not accept a three-year contract for these jobs unless the terms and conditions of employment allow for vacation time or off-hours. 

The cut-off line of three years was derived by the Hagos Mordechai from the fact that the Torah refers to the Hebrew slave’s typical six-year term of servitude as twice the length of time to which a normal worker commits himself (Devarim 16:18). The Hagos Mordechai reasons that since the Torah places a three years period of labor under the rubric of normal employment, anything more than three years would no longer be considered normal employment, but rather, would fall under the category of slavery. 

The Torah’s view that a Jew is fundamentally indentured to Hashem can also be seen in the following halacha. In Choshen Mishpat 333:3 the Mechaber states, “[Even if a worker committed himself to work an entire day and] he started the work, he can quit in the middle of the day. Even if he received his wages in advance and does not have the money to return the unearned portion, he can quit and owe the money to his employer. [This is because the pasuk says,] “Because to me the B’nei Yisroel are slaves” – they will not be slaves to [those who are themselves] slaves.” 

Certainly, a worker should not break his commitment by quitting in the middle of the day unless he has a very good reason. The Torah considers it to be an injustice to his employer (see Nemukei Yosef, Bava Metziah 54b). Furthermore, there are a number of possible exclusions and exceptions to this halacha. Therefore, one should definitely seek the counsel of a Choshen Mishpat professional before quitting one’s job. That being said, the fact remains that in principle the Torah does not want a Jew to feel shackled to anyone except Hashem, and therefore, the Torah gives a person the right to quit his job without penalty. 

Shackled to Hashem… It might sound strange to someone living in the 21st century. In the society in which we live, there is nothing more sacred than a person’s rights and freedoms. Being shackled to anything is quite out of style – ‘how demeaning!’ Maybe that is how it must be for society at large, but for those of us who were taken out of Egypt, we know that Man’s role in Creation is to be a servant. True freedom can only be attained by freely choosing to relinquish it. And so for us, being shackled to Hashem will always be the pinnacle of accomplishment and we will always consider it to be the greatest of honors.

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