web analytics
April 18, 2014 / 18 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance
Judaism
Sponsored Post
Spa 1.2 Combining Modern Living in Traditional Jerusalem

A unique and prestigious residential project in now being built in Mekor Haim Street in Jerusalem.



Home » Judaism

Rabbi Lord Sacks: The Hardship Of Freedom


Share Button

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.

Share Button

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.

Leave a comment (Select your commenting platform)

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.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Loading Facebook Comments ...
Loading Disqus Comments ...
Current Top Story
Flyers ordered Jews to appear at a designated location in Ukraine, in Sept., 1941. The next day, the Jews lined up at the Babi Yar Ravine.
‘Jews Must Register’ Flyer in Ukraine an Echo of Babi Yar
Latest Judaism Stories
Reiss-041814-King

Amazingly, each and every blade was green and moist as if it was just freshly cut.

PTI-041814

All the commentaries ask why Hashem focuses on the Exodus as opposed to saying, “I am Hashem who created the entire world.”

Leff-041814

Someone who focuses only on the bones of the Torah makes his bones dry and passionless.

The following is President Obama’s statement on Passover (April 14, 2014). As he has in the past, the President held an official Passover Seder at the White House. Michelle and I send our warmest greetings to all those celebrating Passover in the United States, in Israel, and around the world. On Tuesday, just as we […]

The tendency to rely on human beings rather than G-d has been our curse throughout the centuries.

“Who is wise? One who learns from each person” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)

In Judaism, to be without questions is a sign not of faith, but of lack of depth.

“I’ll try to help as we can,” said Mr. Goodman, “but we already made a special appeal this year. Let me see what other funds we have. I’ll be in touch with you in a day or two.”

Rashi is bothered by the expression Hashem used: “the Jews need only travel.”

Reckoning Time
‘Three Festivals, Even Out Of Order’
(Beizah 19b)

Two husbands were there to instruct us in Texas hold ‘em – and we needed them.

Question: Why do we start counting sefirat ha’omer in chutz la’aretz on the second night of Pesach when the omer in the times of the Beit Hamikdash was cut on Chol HaMoed?

M. Goldman
(Via E-Mail)

A few background principles regarding the prohibitions of chametz mixtures on Pesach may provide some shopping guidance.

According to the Rambam, the k’nas applies to any chametz on Pesach with which one could, in theory, transgress the aveirah – even if no transgression actually occurred.

She was followed by the shadows of the Six Million, by the ever so subtle awareness of their vanished presence.

More Articles from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Sacks

In Judaism, to be without questions is a sign not of faith, but of lack of depth.

Rabbi Sacks

You perpetuate a transformative event by turning it into a ritual.

There is much in this episode that is hard to understand, much that has to do with the concept of holiness and the powerful energies it released that, like nuclear power today, could be deadly dangerous if not properly used. But there is also a more human story about two approaches to leadership that still resonates with us today.

Nasi is the generic word for a leader: a ruler, king, judge, elder, or prince. Usually it refers to the holder of political power.

The account of the construction of the Tabernacle in Vayakhel-Pekudei is built around the number seven.

Vayakhel is Moses’ response to the wild abandon of the crowd that gathered around Aaron and made the golden calf.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you fail. Such is life.

In Judaism, monarchy had little or no religious function.

    Latest Poll

    Now that Kerry's "Peace Talks" are apparently over, are you...?







    View Results

    Loading ... Loading ...

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

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: