Jeremiah (prophet) c. 655 BCE -.586 BCE.
Parshat Mishpatim follows the parsha in which G-d gives the Ten Commandments to b’nei Yisrael on Mount Sinai. The first commandment is commonly translated as “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” It is fascinating that G-d could have introduced and described Himself in many ways. What did he choose? He chose “Who took you out of the land of slavery”
This parsha begins to describe various of G-d’s laws and the first laws discussed are about slavery.
Judaism gave the world its moral code. The Ten Commandments deal with many things from recognizing one G-d to keeping the Sabbath, to the prohibition of murder, theft, and adultery. Why then would the first laws that are discussed in the Torah concern slavery?
If you remember, the Israelites had just been released from Egypt where they had been enslaved. Those many years of servitude had been imprinted on their psyche. When G-d introduces Himself to the Israelites He uses slavery as part of the introduction. “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of slavery.” Bondage was obviously in the forefront of the Israelites’ minds. G-d knew that laws concerning slavery would resonate strongly with the Children of Israel. Consequently it was a wise strategy to introduce a moral code starting with issues of slavery.
The haftarah for Mishpatim is from the Book of Jeremiah. It is set during the final siege of Jerusalem. In 588 BCE Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, invaded Jerusalem. King Zedekiah ordered the release of all Jewish slaves, thinking this might reverse the conquest of Judaea. Two years later, when things had calmed down slightly, the slave owners re-intered their slaves. G-d told Jeremiah that since the people had put men and women back into servitude they would be punished.
The slave conditions of sweatshop workers in the “shmatteh” business are well documented. Young immigrants from Europe were put to work there. The hours were long, the pay was miserly, and the workers would be locked in so they couldn’t take breaks for lunch or supper, or meet with union leaders to organize. Although the workers were not “owned “by their employers as they were in biblical times- they were owned by their employers in terms of their lives.
My illustration at the top of the page shows the infamous fire in 1911 at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Company. It killed 146 young sweatshop workers; most of whom were Jewish immigrant girls aged 16 – 23. The image of the workers is based on a photograph of the young women and men striking, trying to get better working conditions.
It is fitting that many of the union organizers throughout time and throughout the world have been Jews, and just as G-d commanded us not to enslave and torture others, Jews have fought throughout history for human and employee rights. Human dignity, respecting other people, and treating all humans as equals are concepts central to Judaism. Jewish laws are concerned with those ideas and have communicated them to cultures around the world. We are a people who believe in justice and freedom and will continue to work for it and fight for it. Our stubbornness in this particular arena is a stubbornness we can all be proud of.
“Five Thousand Years of Slavery” by Marjorie Gann and Janet Willen gives a thorough history of world slavery with fascinating photographs and reprinted documents. It is a great educational tool for home or school.