By Rabbi Naftoly Bier
ואלו המשפטים , “and these are the ‘social laws’ that you should transmit in full clarity…” These are מצוות which are to be understood in a logical manner per understanding what Hashem expects from us in our interaction with others.
The first mitzvah is the idea of the עבד עברי, the Jewish “indentured servant”. Just as the statement אנכי ה‘ אלוקיך is the basis for the עשרת הדברות , so too we can say that this commandment is the basis of our obligations and responsibilities to society.
An עבד עברי can be one who due to impoverished conditions, his family is destitute and reeling from hunger will attempt to steal money, but get caught. How is he to pay back what he stole? He has nothing!
The Torah instructs the בית דין, the court, to hire him as an indentured servant for six years. His “Master” has to abide by the following rules:
- He must be given equal status to all members of the master’s family, the same quality food, accommodations; if there is only one bottle of wine or one comfortable pillow it is given to him. He must be showered with brotherly love.
- No menial work is allowed; even to carry the master’s towel and clothing to the bathhouse.
- The master must feed the ‘servant’s’ family, even if there are three wives and fourteen children.
- He can only be asked to perform work that is his vocation or an expert at.
- When the “servant” leaves, he is given, הענקה seedlings and animals to start a business with, its value equal to six months of labor.
Obviously, the master has gained a “Master”. Hashem is instructing the master to rehabilitate the “poor guy” who is scorned by his friends, he has lost the respect of his family, he is downtrodden and hopeless.
Says Hashem, “every person is important to Me, every person has to be important to you, for My world is founded on the principle that every human has their definitive, singular role.”
You, the master, have a lofty, tremendous responsibility to magnanimously elevate the ‘slave’s’ spirits, ennoble him, edify him, so that he once again has an inner sense of human dignity and nobility; where he can once again declare, “I can and I will be a productive member of society.”
Why is this the first commandment? Why is it so fundamental to our understanding of one’s life mission?
The משנה in פרקי אבות , Ethics of our Fathers Ch. 4:1 states: “ איזהו מכובד, המכבד את הבריות – Who is honored, one who honors others.” There are many explanations to this dictum. The Alter explained, “That when one treats another with reverence and respect due to one’s perception that a person is a צלם אלוקים, a creation of G-d that is an embodiment of Him, only then can one truly feel, understand, and internalize their own innate dignity and nobility.
One struggles all the time; should one’s living experience revolve around oneself or rather, one should always ask, “What am I doing for Hashem’s world- who am I?!”
The mitzvah of עבד עברי, the indentured servant is not just about the person in need. IT’S ABOUT US! It’s an exercise of how to correctly live. It’s about our responsibility to relentlessly, selflessly with passion, sensitivity, love, and compassion to enable others to live a life permeated with dignity. By conducting ourselves in such a manner, one inculcates and imbues in oneself unequivocal validation.
As דוד המלך said, “כי מכבדי אכבד”, “for those who honor Me, I honor them.” An explanation, those who honor Hashem by respecting His creation, the human, will be infused by Hashem with a feeling of dignity, self-validation, and self-esteem. We are being taught, the true manner to gain self-respect is only by respecting and revering others.