Undoing Slavery and Acquiring Ourselves
The very first law of the extended laws of Parashat Mishpatim starts with a horrifying phrase: “כי תקנה עבד עברי - When you acquire a Hebrew slave.” We were just, two weeks ago, freed from being Hebrew slaves. How could the Torah possibly articulate the words “Hebrew slave”? Indeed, midrash posits that the Torah wrote these words “against its will,” wary of the possibility that one Hebrew would derisively deem another Hebrew a “slave,” but compelled to discuss this ugly matter nonetheless.1
Beyond the issue of individual derision, there is a larger problem. After the incredible power of the exodus from slavery, through the workings of so many divine miracles, it is totally devastating to imagine the Hebrews recreating a structure that includes slaves. How could we recreate the very structure we escaped? And how could we acquire Hebrew slaves, essentially becoming like Pharaoh? This first law in Parashat Mishpatim forces us to confront the fact that oppressive structures become entrenched, and won’t disappear overnight. The dramatic liberation story is over. Now starts the much harder work of finding redemption within unideal and often harsh realities.
The Torah’s first intervention is a rude awakening to confront the fear of what we could become. Midrash relates that this first law is a warning, meant to ensure that we don’t follow in the path of the Egyptians. The Egyptians abused their power, afflicting Israel with harsh labor, and refusing to let them go when the time came; therefore God punished them. The horror at hearing the phrase, “When you acquire a Hebrew slave,” motivates us to abide by Parashat Mishpatim’s restrictions on slavery so as to avoid divine punishment. The same midrash goes on to link the word “mishpatim” in this parashah to the word “mishpat” in a verse in Zechariah (8:16), which offers the clear directive not to use power to oppress the vulnerable in our society—the widow, orphan, stranger and poor.2 Speaking to the Hebrew slave who may become slaveowner, this first law aims to ensure we will not be like Pharoah.
Instead, we have to radically reunderstand the meaning of “When you acquire a Hebrew slave” as an invitation to “acquire” like God, not Pharoah. God too “acquired” Hebrew slaves, not in order to enslave them, but to free them. Indeed, one midrash specifically refers to the exodus as God’s “acquisition” of Israel, with the same verb as in the phrase “when you acquire a Hebrew slave:”
שמות רבה ל:ה
…כי תקנה עבד עברי… אמר להם הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל: אני קניתי אתכם במצרים בי' מכות
שהראיתי, שנאמר (תהלים קלט) נפלאים מעשיך ונפשי יודעת מאד.
Shemot Rabbah 30:5
…“when you acquire a Hebrew slave…” The Holy Blessed One said to Israel: I acquired you in Egypt with the ten plagues I showed you, as it is said, “Your deeds are wonderful and my soul knows it well” (Psalm 139:14).
In biblical Hebrew, the root ק.נ.ה. can mean to acquire, but it can also mean to “create,”3 signaling a creation that comes through acquisition. God’s acquisition of the Hebrew slaves demonstrates how to “acquire” someone in a position of subjugation so that they become free and can create themselves anew. The language of redemption as “acquiring” Israel rings with the overtones of the Song at the Sea, where we describe ourselves as “עם זו קנית - the people You acquired.” Like a rebirth, coming through the waters of the sea into God’s acquisition was a moment of creating ourselves as a new people.
In this vein of “acquiring a Hebrew slave” in the way God acquires, we find a midrash where the time limits on owning the Hebrew slave—six years as a slave and going free in the seventh year—mimics God’s ownership. God had the world “work” for six days, and be free of work on the seventh.4 God didn’t expect the world to “work for God” forever. In another midrash that compares the cycle of the Hebrew slave to Israel’s eschatology, we see the broad arc of Jewish (meta)history described as Israel serving six nations and then ultimately becoming free in the end of days.5 Acquiring like God involves a vision of identity that is not embedded in being subjugated to others, but comes from the freedom of self-definition.
This radical rereading of acquisition is not only meaningful for one who comes to hold structural power, but can also resonate for the just freed Hebrew slave who hears that the future still holds slavery. The question becomes how to find pathways towards self-creation even as oppressive power structures stubbornly linger. On this, there is much to learn from Black Feminist scholarship. Claudia Tate writes about transcending limitations of oppression, and describes the power of self-definition in Black women’s literature. Significant change occurs “…because the heroine recognizes, and more importantly respects her inability to alter a situation… she learns to exceed former boundaries but only as a direct result of knowing where they lie.”6 Even as Parashat Mishpatim teaches that oppressive structures might linger, this Black feminist perspective insists that transformation is still possible. But how?
Our midrash that refers to God acquiring the Hebrew slaves goes on to quote a rich verse in Psalms, painting a picture where “acquisition” coincides with deep knowledge and creation:
13כִּֽי־אַ֭תָּה קָנִ֣יתָ כִלְיֹתָ֑י תְּ֝סֻכֵּ֗נִי בְּבֶ֣טֶן אִמִּֽי׃ 14אוֹדְךָ֗ עַ֤ל כִּ֥י נֽוֹרָא֗וֹת נִ֫פְלֵ֥יתִי נִפְלָאִ֥ים מַעֲשֶׂ֑יךָ וְ֝נַפְשִׁ֗י יֹדַ֥עַת מְאֹֽד׃
13It was You who created/acquired my kidneys, You covered me in my mother’s womb. 14I praise You, because amazing things make me wondrous; Your deeds are wonderful and my soul knows it well.
“Acquiring” here does not have any pretense of owning another person. Instead, it refers to God’s acquisition as being deeply seated in our kidneys, the seat of consciousness in ancient times. Acquisition is about catalyzing a transformation towards deep self-knowledge, wonder, and creation.
Claudia Tate discusses how this kind of journey towards self-definition and self-creation can occur even within stubborn power structures. Coming out of her keen awareness of unalterable constraints, Tate goes on to describe how a protagonist in Black women’s literature nonetheless “… teaches her readers a great deal about constructing a meaningful life in the midst of chaos and contingencies, armed with nothing more than her intellect and emotions.”7 Giving voice to our intellect and emotions (our “kidneys” in the Psalms text), we can find a power of divine acquisition that lets us create ourselves, in contrast to oppressive structures of human acquisition. Even without the dramatic miracles that totally alter oppressive structures, this power of self-definition does its transformative work from within the confines of existing constraints.
The words “when you acquire a Hebrew slave” ask us to pursue this kind of acquisition, to hold power in the way God holds power—and not in the way Pharaoh held power. This means a constant sense of how we can swerve any power we might hold (whether through structural means, or not) towards the possibility of self-creation, rather than subjugation.
The law of “when you acquire a Hebrew slave” signals to the recently redeemed Hebrew slaves that one day some of them will inhabit power over their own, and some of them will be subject to each other. While imaging this in the recent wake of Egyptian slavery should be horrifying (as we saw, the Torah writes this “against its will”), it would be wrong to pretend that the reality of power imbalance won’t reemerge. There is only one way to wield power to create a world without oppression. Power must be a means of empowerment, with a clear timeline and clear parameters along the way. When we acquire, we must acquire like God, not like Pharoah. This law comes as the climax of the extended narrative of God acquiring Hebrew slaves so as to free them, and God’s acquisition offers a radically different way to inhabit and experience power. Whether as the one who holds structural power, or one who feels bound by the structural power of others, there must be a shared vision of power that leads to greater freedom, and paves the way for the creative expression of a full self. We live this pattern weekly on Shabbat, experiencing how God lets go, allowing us to create ourselves anew. This mindset must inform every day of our lives.
1 Mekhilta Massekhta de-Nezikin 1: עבד, יכול תקראנו עבד לשום בזיון? ת"ל כי תקנה עבד עברי, התורה קראתו עבד בעל כרחה. / Could it be that you can call this person a slave in a derisive way? The verse teaches us “When you acquire a slave, a Hebrew”—the Torah called him a slave against its will.
2 Shemot Rabbah 30:15: אתה מוצא משפטים הרבה יש בענין הזה, לפי שאמר הקדוש ברוך הוא (שמות כ) אנכי ה' אלהיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים מבית עבדים, מהו אומר על עבד עברי כי תקנה עבד עברי, אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא כשם שבראתי את העולם לו' ימים ונחתי בשביעי, כך יעשה עמך ו' שנים ויצא בן חורין… גזר הקדוש ברוך הוא שיהו ישראל משועבדים במצרים עד שירצה ויחזירם, עמדו עליהם ושעבדו אותם בחוזק לא שמרדו בהן אלא אמר להם האלהים הנהג בהם כעבדים ויעשו צרכיהם עד שתשלם הגזירה, אלא אני קצפתי מעט והם עזרו לרעה, כך אחר הדברות הזהיר הקדוש ברוך הוא על המשפטים שלא יעברו עליהם ישראל ויעשה להם כשם שעשה למצרים, לכך אמר הנביא להם לישראל (שם /זכריה/ ח) אמת ומשפט שפטו ואלמנה ויתום וגר ועני אל תעשוקו.
5 Midrash Aggadah (Buber), Shemot 21:2: כי תקנה עבד עברי. פתח במשפט [עבד] עברי, לפי שהיו עבדים במצרים, ופדאם הקדוש ברוך הוא ונתן להם חירות, לפיכך צוה לישראל בראשונה שלא לשעבד באחיהו בפרך ולא לשעבדו [לדורות], כי אם עד השנה השביעית, שנאמר כי עבדי הם אשר הוצאתי וגו' (ויקרא כה מב), לפיכך פתח במשפט עבד עברי, ואמר כי תקנה, לכשיבוא בידך כי אם יגנוב ונמצא בידו שור או חמור או שה, צריך ליתן תשלומי שנים או ארבעה או חמשה ואין לו מיתה, ואם אין לו לשלם, בית דין ימכרוהו בגניבתו אז מותר לקנותו, שנאמר ואם אין לו ונמכר בגניבתו (שמות כב ב): עבד עברי. על שם אביהם, שנאמר ויגד לאברם העברי (בראשית יד יג): שש שנים יעבוד. רמז על ישראל שישראל עבדו בשש גליות, גלות מצרים, גלות סנחריב, וגלות ארבעה מלכיות, הרי שש: ובשביעית יצא. זה מלכות גוג ומגוג:
6 Quoted in Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought (Routledge, 2008), p. 118. Emphasis mine.
7 Collins, p. 118.