web analytics
April 19, 2015 / 30 Nisan, 5775
At a Glance
Judaism
Sponsored Post


Home » Judaism

Rabbi Lord Sacks: The Hardship Of Freedom


First in Parshat Yitro there were the Asseret Hadibrot (the Ten Utterances, or general principles). Now in Parshat Mishpatim come the details. Here is how they begin:

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything … But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life” (Exodus 21:2-6).

There is an obvious question. Why begin here? There are 613 commandments in the Torah. Why does Mishpatim, the first law code, begin where it does?

The answer is equally obvious. The Israelites have just endured slavery in Egypt. There must be a reason why this happened, for G-d knew it was going to happen. Evidently he intended it to happen. Centuries before He had already told Abraham it would happen:

“As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there’ ” (Genesis 15:12-13).

It seems that this was the necessary first experience of the Israelites as a nation. From the very start of the human story, the G-d of freedom sought the free worship of free human beings, but one after the other people abused that freedom: first Adam and Eve, then Cain, then the generation of the Flood, then the builders of Babel.

G-d began again, this time not with all humanity, but with one man, one woman, one family, who would become pioneers of freedom. But freedom is difficult. We each seek it for ourselves, but we deny it to others when their freedom conflicts with ours. So deeply is this true that within three generations of Abraham’s children, Joseph’s brothers were willing to sell him into slavery – a tragedy that did not end until Judah was prepared to forfeit his own freedom so that his brother Benjamin could go free.

It took the collective experience of the Israelites, their deep, intimate, personal, backbreaking, bitter experience of slavery – a memory they were commanded never to forget – to turn them into a people who would no longer turn their brothers and sisters into slaves, a people capable of constructing a free society, the hardest of all achievements in the human realm.

So it is no surprise that the first laws they were commanded after Sinai related to slavery.

It would have been a surprise had they been about anything else. But now comes the real question: If G-d does not want slavery, if he regards it as an affront to the human condition, why did he not abolish it immediately? Why did he allow it to continue, albeit in a restricted and regulated way? Is it conceivable that G-d, who can produce water from a rock, manna from heaven, and turn the sea into dry land, cannot change human behavior? Are there areas where the All-powerful is, so to speak, powerless?

In 2008 economist Richard Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein published a fascinating book called Nudge. In it they addressed a fundamental problem in the logic of freedom. On the one hand, freedom depends on not over-legislating. It means creating space whereby people have the right to choose for themselves.

On the other hand, we know that people will not always make the right choices. The old model on which classical economics was based, that left the making of rational choices to individuals, turns out not to have worked as hoped. We are deeply irrational, a discovery to which several Jewish academics made major contributions. The psychologists Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram showed how much we are influenced by the desire to conform, even when we know that other people have got it wrong. The Israeli economists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, showed how even when making economic decisions we frequently miscalculate their effects and fail to recognize our motivations – a finding for which Kahneman won the Nobel Prize.

How then do you stop people from doing harmful things without taking away their freedom? Thaler and Sunstein’s answer is that there are oblique ways in which you can influence people. In a cafeteria, for example, you can put healthy food at eye level and junk food in a more inaccessible and less noticeable place. You can subtly adjust what they call people’s “choice architecture.”

That is exactly what G-d does in the case of slavery. He does not abolish it, but he so circumscribes it that he sets in motion a process that will ultimately, even if only after many centuries, lead people to abandon it of their own accord.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

One Response to “Rabbi Lord Sacks: The Hardship Of Freedom”

  1. MH says:

    I’m sorry – but while Chumash certainly humanizes to a greater degree than the then ambient treatment of the slave – it does not abolish it; neither it nor similar serf like existences.

    While it is true that in America we needed to fight a civil war over slavery, and lose over 500,000 lives, let us review in a different vein:

    Approximately 3000 years ago we were given the attenuated form of slavery miSinai. In any given country in which slavery of some sort might be deemed legal, a practising orthodox Jew, in perfect concert with The Torah, can keep a slave – – especially if he is “Caanani”. 3000 years later, slavery is still legal in Torah – though attenuated.

    In the USA, while from 1650 to 1863 slavery was legal – for a little over 200 years of post Columbian history; that was now over 150 years ago. Already, One Third of Americas history has been spent under the umbrella of banned slavery. While slavery remains perfectly legal in Torah. It took us 200 years – but we learned. It has taken 3000 years, and Torah has still not learned.

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
The flag of Iraqi Kurdistan.
US Consulate Targeted by ISIS in Iraqi Kurdistan
Latest Judaism Stories
Hertzberg-041715

Lincoln was not a perfect man. But he rose above his imperfections to do what he thought was right not matter the obstacles.

Arch of Titus

Adon Olam: An Erev Shabbat Musical Interlude Courtesy of David Herman

Daf-Yomi-logo

Oh My, It’s Copper!
‘…And One Who Is A Coppersmith’
(Kethubboth 77a)

Grunfeld-Raphael-logo

The omer sacrifice of loose barley flour was more fitting for animal consumption than human consumption and symbolizes the depths to which the Jewish slaves had sunk.

Question: If Abraham was commanded to circumcise his descendants on the eighth day, why do Arabs – who claim to descend from Abraham through Yishmael – wait until their children are 13 to circumcise them? I am aware that this is a matter of little consequence to our people. Nevertheless, this inconsistency is one that piques my curiosity.

M. Goldman
(Via E-mail)

When Chazal call not eating treif food a chok, that refers to how it functions.

His mother called “Yoni, Yoni!” Her eyes, a moment earlier dark with pain, shone with joy and hope

Kashrut reminds us that in the end, God is the arbiter of right and wrong.

In a cab with Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach & Rav Elayshiv discussing if/when to say tefillas haderech

The successful student listens more than speaks out; wants his ideas critiqued, not just appreciated

Why would it not be sufficient to simply state lehoros from which we derive that in such a state one may not issue any psak?

What do we learn about overcoming loss from the argument between Moses and Aaron’s remaining 2 sons?

Each of the unique roles attributed to Moshe share the common theme that they require of and grant higher sanctity to the individual filling the role.

Because of the way the piece of my finger had been severed, the doctors at the hospital were not able to reattach it. They told me I’d have to see a specialist.

“The problem is that the sum total is listed is $17,000. However, when you add the sums mentioned, it is clear that the total of $17,000 is an error. Thus, Mr. Broyer owes me $18,000, not $17,000.”

More Articles from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Rambam: Eating blood’s forbidden because connected to idolatry;Ramban: We’re affected by what we eat

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

There is something quite distinctive about the biblical approach to time.

Why should unintentional sins require atonement? What guilt exists when requisite intent is lacking?

Like Shabbat points to something beyond time, the people Israel points to something beyond history

The Sabbath is a full dress rehearsal for an ideal society that has not yet come to pass-but will

Jewish prayer is a convergence of 2 modes of biblical spirituality, exemplified by Moses and Aaron

With the synagogue, “Judaism created one of the greatest revolutions in the history of religion”

By wisdom, we come to understand G-d via creation; By Torah we understand G-d through His revelation

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/the-hardship-of-freedom/2012/02/15/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: