G-d gives the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel in parashat Yitro. The parashah describes the thunder and lightning, the shaking of Mount Sinai, and the fear and trembling of the Israelites. It is a beautiful parashah. This week’s reading, Mishpatim (Laws), is comprised of laws that further define the Ten Commandments.
Judaism gave the world its moral code. The Ten Commandments outline many things from recognizing one G-d, to keeping the Sabbath, to the prohibition of murder, theft, and adultery. The first laws that are discussed in the parashah concern slavery. The Israelites had just been released from Egypt where they had been slaves. Those many years of servitude had been imprinted on their psyche. G-d knew that laws concerning slavery would resonate strongly with the Children of Israel.
The first law offers the possibility of freedom to a slave. “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free…” (Ex. 21:2-3). The Israelites are told to empathize with strangers. “Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.” (Ex. 22:21) and “Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners because you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Ex. 23:9) G-d knows that if a person empathizes with the “other”, with a stranger, that person will show greater understanding and patience to the stranger.
The haftarah for Mishpatim is from the Book of Jeremiah. King Zedekiah had ordered the release of all Jewish slaves, as per G-d’s instruction. Two years later the owners re-inter their slaves. G-d tells Jeremiah that since the owners have re-enslaved their servants they will be punished. Slavery did not end in Jeremiah’s time as we know.
It has continued throughout history, even to the present day. Modern slavery exists in the notorious sweatshops in China, with the chained children in India who weave carpets, prostitution rings, and collapsed garment factories. Jews, too, have been the victims of modern slavery.
The slave conditions of sweatshop workers in the “shmatteh” business are well documented. In the 19th and 20th centuries, young immigrants from Europe were put to work in dangerous conditions. 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 for Mishpatim 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.
Rose Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich were two of the Jewish women who organized the women’s garment unions. Jews have been union organizers throughout time and throughout the world. 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. 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.
Read this week’s parashah and haftarah. Notice the righteousness. Notice the details. G-d is in them.
Have a Shabbat Shalom, Laya
“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.