As many of you know, my family and I spent a few weeks in the US during the last month visiting family. Two of the cities we visited in our trip were Philadelphia and Boston, both very important during the American Revolution and Independence. When Raya’s family asked me whether I find any personal meaning or connection to the history of these places, they were surprised to find out that I do. Really, I do not want to engage in a historical discussion about the details of the American Revolution and the war with the United Kingdom, but at least in the narrative of the Americans it was a fight for freedom and that is a value I regard very highly: freedom.
In our Parashah this week we find a peculiar story that sheds light on the Jewish vision on freedom. The Torah says that if a slave escapes his or her master and comes to us, we are not allowed to deliver him back to his master, exactly the opposite, we are to let him live with us as a free person. Such an extraordinary idea! We would in vain look for a parallel legislation in any other nation, ancient or modern.
In historical context, we could think that this was not fair for the owner. After all, he had paid for the slave and what right had he to run away? And indeed, in other legislation, including relatively modern ones, there were severe penalties for slaves who tried to escape their service as well as for those that would aid or hide them. Sometimes, the penalty was death. The 3000 years old Torah shows in this issue a far more humanist spirit that many modern law systems. But “rabbi”, you could say, “the Torah “allows” slavery and our modern law, at least in the Western World, does not. How can you say that?” And in truly Jewish fashion, I would answer you with a question: Does the Torah really sanctions slavery, at least in the way we think of it?
A little more than a hundred years ago, when noble-hearted men tried to abolish slavery, sometimes religious leaders opposed them by claiming that G-d’s Bible sanctions it. Those religious leaders were wrong.
Nowhere in the Torah there is tolerance for what we have come to call “slavery” and it’s what we have in our minds when we hear the term: human traffic, torture, inhuman treatment. The Hebrew term “Eved” does not correspond to the modern term “slave”. Under Jewish Law a person could become an “eved” in one of two ways. Either he had committed a crime and was unable to make reparations, not having the means to do so. His services, not himself, were bought by a man who wanted them and that money would be used to make good of the damage that had been done. On the other hand, a person may have fallen on bad times and become homeless and unable to maintain himself and he would decide to sell his labour for home and food. In neither case the master had absolute right over the person and their relationship was highly regulated by the Law.
There were many cases when the Law forces the Master to liberate the “eved” as the Law sees a cruel or violent man as unfit to own “slaves”. Most of these Laws apply both to Gentile and Jewish “avadim”.
Under this light, if we go back to our Parashah and the case of the escaping slave things look different. Why would the slave run away from his master? He had nothing to gain and even if in his new town he would be free, without means of supporting himself he possibly would see himself taking a new master very soon. Therefore, the cause for the escape could most possibly be an abusive and cruel master and then it makes sense why he shouldn’t be returned to him, even if later the slave would take a new, better, master.
According to the rabbis, the passage relates more particularly to a Gentile slave living in a neighbouring country and escaping to Israel for asylum.
But what about today? How is this relevant today? Maybe we can think of the analogy of the escaping slave with an emigrant from one country to another. Most of us are very attached to the land of their birth and they want to live their lives there, where they understand the culture and language, close to their family and friends. So sometimes people decided by professional reasons to move to a different place, that’s not the cases we are talking about.
What can induce a person to tear himself from his native soil and wander to a strange land, unfamiliar with the language, braving the hardships of the journey under difficult conditions? As with the slave escaping a master, the answer must lay in cruelty and persecution, be it economic, social or physical.
Our people are some of the most persistent wanderers, we know this feeling and most of our families moved many times escaping cruelty and persecution. They would leave to go somewhere where the rumours said that Jews are treated like human beings.
Today we face an immigration crisis in Europe and it’s very easy to see things black and white, trying to have harsher immigration laws because of fear of what a few of these people have done or will do. The Torah says we cannot deliver back a slave to his cruel master, a person that is truly escaping from a cruel life by coming to our country, that decided to leave everything behind for the hope of a better life, the Torah is asking us to embrace and be generous to that person, as this country and many others were to our ancestors a hundred years ago.
It’s not easy, it’s not a black or white issue, each case is different and should be studied and decided on its own merits. Let’s remember, however, that our traditions demands from us to be understanding, to love the stranger and help person escaping from cruelty and persecution.