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Parashat Ki Tetze 5777: Slavery and immigrants

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 had a right to him or her. Indeed, in other legislations, 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 thousands 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 in the first place! How can you say it has a humanist approach? 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, mostly Christian, but Jewish and others as well; opposed them by claiming that God’s Bible sanctions it. Those religious leaders were wrong. Nowhere in the Torah there is tolerance for what we have come to call “slavery” in our minds: 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 rights over the person and their relationship was highly regulated by Torah 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”. 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 might 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 maybe 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 immigrants. Most of us are very attached to the land of our birth and we want to live our lives there, where we understand the culture and language, close to family and friends. Sometimes people decide 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 before they reached our current place of birth. They would leave to go somewhere where the rumours said that Jews were treated like human beings. The Torah says we cannot deliver back a slave to his cruel master, a person that is truly escaping from a cruel life by moving to a different country, who decided to leave everything behind for the hope of a better life. The Torah commands us to embrace and be generous to that person, as this country and many others were to our ancestors in the past. If we are in a situation to do so, let’s strive to love the stranger and help people escaping from cruelty and persecution. Let’s be part of the solution, not of the problem.

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