29 Shevat 5773 / Feb. 8-9, 2013
This week’s portion, Mishpatim, is full of rules for the Israelite nation to adopt and follow, from how to treat one’s parents, to the punishments for murder and thievery, to not collecting interest on loans to fellow Israelites. A concept repeated more than once in the portion is: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Surprisingly (to me), a significant portion of Mishpatim’s rules deal with how to treat one’s slaves.
For example, we learn that while you can’t kill your slave outright, you can beat him. But, if in doing so you poke out his eye or knock out his tooth, he gets to go free.
The Israelites had just been enslaved for hundreds of years in Egypt. How could they possibly think about enslaving others so soon after their exodus into freedom?
Some rabbinic commentators argue that the verses here don’t deal with slavery as we’ve come to know it, but rather, indentured servitude (I’ll note as a refutation to the concept that the word “eved” is used in the verses here to describe such a slave – just as we say “avadim (plural of eved) hayiinu” on Passover when retelling the story of our own enslavement).
The notion of indentured servitude is an interesting one. Is such servitude any better than, or any different than, slavery?
How does indentured servitude arise? In the Torah, it comes about when you owe restitution to another, but don’t have the means to make the payment. For example, in Mishpatim, we learn that if a thief is caught in the act during daylight hours, he must make restitution. If he lacks the means, “he shall be sold for his theft.”
While there is a distinction between a restitution payment and a debt obligation payment, and while the notion of “working off a debt” certainly makes more sense in agrarian societies where there are all manner of field labors that need to be performed (and can be performed by everyone), can we imagine a contemporary society where indentured servitude for unpaid debts is the norm?
If you had no way of paying outstanding debt and defaulted on a loan, would you go work for the lender or lending entity until you’ve paid your debt off? Would you feel a sense of responsibility for your outstanding obligation?
We jokingly see this in movies sometimes in the form of washing dishes at a restaurant in order to pay off your check (think Mighty Ducks 3). But as a more serious example, there are many people currently defaulting on their student loan payment obligations. In Biblical times, the result of such defaults might have been indentured servitude (which in today’s world might actually be deemed positive, as you could put a line on your resume saying you “worked” at a bank, for the government, etc., assuming that one of the primary reasons for default is lack of income due to under or unemployment). Can you imagine some sort of contemporary indentured servitude arrangement for those who default due to an inability to pay what they owe?
My guess is that due to the personal autonomy we have in America, coupled with laws that make slavery in its myriad forms illegal, it would be quite a challenge to suggest that individuals serve as indentured servants in order to pay off their accumulated debt. But it seems evident that the prospect of indentured servitude as the potential consequence of failure to pay what we owe would certainly make us a bit more cautious as it relates to how we treat others, their property, and any debt we might willingly acquire.
I find it a struggle to stomach the notion that the rules of enslaving others were given so shortly after securing our own freedom from Egypt. However, if such rules can help us place a value on treating others and their property well, borrowing modestly, making timely payments, and honoring our debt obligations, those lessons ring true and hold value for us today, despite societally no longer (thankfully) allowing slavery in its myriad forms to legally exist.