We’ve been on a journey for the past few weeks. We’ve been considering God’s expectations of us in our relationships with others. We began with the core principle of loving our neighbor as our self. We worked through what that means with those closest to us - our families, those in our community, our real neighbors. We then extended our concern to those in our midst who are weaker, who are in need. Today we go further out still - to the stranger, to the servant and slave, to the enemy, and even to animals. Let’s see how we’re to understand and live true to the arc of expectations our God has established all across this spectrum of living creatures that have been placed by God with us in our world. Let's begin our reading.
Deuteronomy 10:20 20 You too should befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Q1: Let’s start with this question: who do we take these strangers to be?
been a lot of discussion over the centuries about this matter, but let’s
begin with your views.
One rather traditional view is that the stranger is a convert to our religion from another. While this is a narrower view, it takes us to certain places that are important. We should not take a lesser view of such a person, nor treat him/her in any lesser way than one who has been among us forever when both profess and live in the Way of God. There’s certainly an inclination to prefer one with whom we’ve been long familiar and have long walked the path together. Further, there might be a temptation to doubt whether the newcomer is sincere and has truly become committed. We learned what it is like to be treated in subservient ways when we were in Egypt. We shouldn’t treat one who has come to us from elsewhere in a subservient way.
But this reading seems too limited. Even Chinuch goes further to discuss the applicability of this mitzvah to anyone who finds himself in foreign settings. From the wording of the mitzvah itself, why do we want to go beyond the traditional view?
We didn’t convert, at least in any fundamental way, when we were in Egypt, yet the mitzvah is asking us to apply what we learned from our experience there to others who are with us now as we were there. This suggests that these duties, logically, extend beyond those who convert. It must involve at least some reasonable degree of showing mercy, bringing comfort, and avoiding mistreatment to those in our midst who are as we were in the midst of Egypt.
In that spirit, a post-Talmudic midrash teaches: “I call Heaven and earth to witness, the Divine Spirit rests upon every man, whether he be Jew or gentile, if his life be worthy.” Tana debe Eliyahu, IX.)
B. But does this mitzvah drive us to love all “strangers” in our midst in the same manner and to the same degree. It would naturally be easier with “our own.” It would next be somewhat easier with a convert. But is the same love expected of us for all other foreigners in our midst?
I don’t think the mitzvah demands equivalency. We wouldn’t have expected the Egyptians to treat us as Egyptians, would we? We might not have been full citizens, expecting equality. But we would have expected fairness, respect, dignity, compassion, mercy, a lawful treatment, etc. In return, we certainly carried the duty to live in a “worthy” manner. So, perhaps this is something close to the standard we should expect of ourselves and the strangers in our midst, that is, true foreigners who live with us.
My mind is drawn to those we studied last year who lived on the outskirts of the camp. They were weak, out of place, vulnerable, and likely oppressed. We have a duty of right treatment to them, and we bear the consequences, if we don’t live out that duty.)
Exodus 22:21 21 You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Q2. What do these mitzvot add to our understanding of how we are to treat the stranger?
There are two mitzvot here, regarding treatment of the stranger: we’re to wrong them neither in 1) business (the generally accepted meaning of “not to oppress”) 2) nor in speech. Why are these additional provisions valuable or even necessary, given the broader direction we’ve just discussed, to love the stranger?
(These may actually be designed to get us to love by getting us to control the evil inclination, the temptation to act on our bias and feelings in such a way that causes distress to the stranger. We feel uncomfortable with the other; we see him/her as less than ourselves. The first step in the slippery slope that leads to ill will or worse is to cause distress and then oppress. Could these have been the first steps the Egyptians took against us when they began “to know not Joseph?”
Further, the stranger is particularly vulnerable and susceptible to harassment, and has fewer resources and support. These mitzvot cause us to be specifically sensitive to that weakness as we work to come to love.
We must act in good ways that God expects and invoke God's kindness, in order that others, here the strangers, can feel and come into the circle God intends for all. This is clearly in tune with the prophetic vision of all coming to the mountain.)
Indentured Servants and Slaves
In our exploration of God’s expectations of us with respect to our duties to others, we now move even further away from family, friends, neighbors, and others whom we more naturally believe to be “co-equals.” Here we will consider the very difficult subject of servants and slaves.
In our day, we, of course, have abolished slavery. And I believe the very mitzvot we’ll look at planted the seeds of slavery’s destruction in a time in the world in which slavery was common and quite accepted. We’ll have a robust discussion of slavery in a bit.
But let’s first deal with a person who is not actually a slave, but rather an indentured servant, who is generally paying off debts through service to another. Even here, our customs are different than those of the ancients: we don’t have bondmen exactly as they did. While we don’t generally make people literally work for us directly until a debt is paid off, we do indirectly do things of the sort. We often will hold a person accountable for working and paying until a debt is paid off entirely.
Let’s look back at ancient customs and pay attention to how God’s word drove people to make those customs more humane and ultimately to revise and change them. Ethical advance often comes in small but hugely important ways. This study allows us to see that up close!
Exodus 21:2 2. When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he will serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he will go free without any payment.
Looking at the Exodus passage, and again putting aside your own 21st century bias against a practice we no longer deploy, what is your first impression of this language?
(The impulse is toward the freedom of the servant. There is an outer limit on the time of service. As we learned last year, if during the six years, the Jubilee occurs, he’s freed. He can always pay the remaining part of the debt and be instantly freed. And, generally, he’s freed if the person to whom he is indebted dies.)
Now let’s look at the mitzvot in Leviticus. What’s their effect?
Leviticus 25:39 39. If one of your fellow Israelites faces financial difficulty with you and sells themselves to you, you must not make him work as a slave.
(One can’t treat such a person like a slave, that is, in a degrading manner. And one can’t impose harsh or unnecessary work on the person.)
What does this mean?
Certain behaviors were not allowed, such as: inordinate subordination; putting on or taking off shoes; washing feet; dressing and undressing; all such activity that is incompatible with being a hired laborer; work that is not really needed; and work that is unduly harsh and dispiriting. (In pondering what the mitzvah means, we should think of the work to which we were subjected in Egypt.) We must recall the wisdom that even this sort of worker is more a brother than a slave to the master.)
What are the bases for these mitzvot?
(As we just discussed, we were bondmen in Egypt, and, in the tradition of “love of neighbor,” we must not treat those who work for us in the way we were treated. God shows us care and compassion and kindness; so should we act toward others. There should never be that large a gap between God’s people as to permit one to submit another to degrading work or status. Paying off debt in such a way could happen to us or one in our family, and we would not want to be treated in a degrading way.
In the long vision, we will all walk to the mountain together. We must live today as if the other will be walking next to us on the path on that day. We are all servants of God alone.)
What’s the ultimate end of the trajectory of the ethical arc here?
(It seems to move toward the idea, according to Chinuch, that we are to provide for the servant on a par with how we would provide for our own. We should provide amenities to the other as if the relationship were closer to I-Thou, than I-it. While, for some, this may not entail “every delicacy” and comfort, it does at least mean amenities of a standard sort, not inconsistent with others in the house and clearly not inferior and no less than that of a regular paid worker.
Some sages insist it does go to equality. “One who acquires a Hebrew servant has effectively acquired a master for himself.” Tosafos.
In either case, we get so close to brotherhood, we either come to the end of the practice of having servants or it’s a sort of work governed by “love of neighbor” principles.)
Leviticus 25:42-43 42. You must do this because these people are my servants—I brought them out of Egypt’s land. They must not be sold as slaves. 43. You will not harshly rule over them but must fear your God.
We won’t dwell on these two mitzvot, either generally or specifically with respect to the complicated and somewhat confusing language of the second one. I did want you to read them and ponder them briefly, though. In simple terms, they carry forward the ideas we just discussed. Essentially, should there be a further need for the servant to work off the debt through a transfer, say, to another master, there can in no way be any treatment of him/her by anyone or in any process of transfer that is tantamount to the treatment given a slave.
Deuteronomy 23: 15-16 15 Don’t return slaves to owners if they’ve escaped and come to you. 16 They can stay with you: in your own community or in any place they select from one of your cities, whatever seems good to them. Don’t oppress them.
Know that the traditional reading of these verses is that the bondman at issue is one who has escaped from abroad and come into the Land. Whether you choose to read it that narrowly or more broadly, what do you make of these mitzvot, especially the first?
(They make a huge additional dent in the institution of servitude. In the Hammurabi Code, which was advanced at the time, it was a capital crime to abet the elopement of a bondman. The Mosaic code commands to the contrary (though the bondman was deemed to owe the master whatever was left of the indebtedness). Nothing approaches this in any other ancient code. Though we take today’s abolition of slavery for granted, we should have special regard for these first Divinely blessed stirrings of concern for the well-being and freedom of the bondman.)
Why do we have the second mitzvah?
The second mitzvah goes the next step to guide the way we treat the fugitive. We must not wrong him, or oppress him, or mistreat him. This is seen principally as not wronging by speech. The basis of this prohibition is similar to that involving the stranger. This person is weak and vulnerable. We’re to curb any negative instinct we have toward such a person and rather show mercy and kindness to one who is freeborn and has sought our help.)
Deuteronomy 24:17-18 17. Don’t obstruct the legal rights of an immigrant or orphan. Don’t take a widow’s coat as pledge for a loan. 18. Remember how you were a slave in Egypt but how the Lord your God saved you from that. That’s why I’m commanding you to do this thing.
3. Deuteronomy 15:13-14 13. Furthermore, when you set them free from your service, you must not let them go empty-handed. 14. Instead, provide for them fully from your flock, food, and wine. You must give to them from that with which the Lord your God has blessed you.
Q3. These mitzvot permit the keeping and use of indentured servants, but do they limit the master in doing so? If so, in what ways, and what’s the significance of that to us?
These complete a picture of God’s intention that this institution, indebted servitude, to the extent it survives, be limited and constrained and made humane. The laborer has served dutifully for an extended period of time. Now he is about to go out, typically without resources and on his own. These requirements cause the master to show gratitude, care for the laborer’s welfare, and provide a transition and bridge - a running start - to his new life. We’re all dependent on God and God’s blessings; so should we bless, and in like manner, those who have been dependent on us. These mitzvot call upon the parties to bring about an end to the relationship in peace.
Further, they create a more equal plane of being for two people the ancient world (and ours?) tend to want to place at opposite poles. They press the powerful to be less the master and the weaker less the servant. They press the master to put himself in the position of the servant and act toward him as he would want to be treated. All of this has the effect of extending the principles of “love of neighbor” ever-outward.)
And Now to Slavery
4. Leviticus 25:44-46 44. Regarding male or female slaves that you are allowed to have: You can buy a male or a female slave from the nations that are around you. 45. You can also buy them from the foreign guests who live with you and from their extended families that are with you, who were born in your land. These can belong to you as property. 46. You can pass them on to your children as inheritance that they can own as permanent property. You can make these people work as slaves, but you must not rule harshly over your own people, the Israelites.
Q4. How do we cope with the idea that God’s word sanctioned slavery? What text have we read in the Bible that would likely be read by later believers as countering or constraining actual resort to the practice of slavery? Further, imagine later rulings based on such text that would first limit slavery and later actually create the case to abolish slavery?
Let me set the stage for our discussion here.
Slavery has been practiced throughout history. Even to the extent it’s been reduced in our own time, aren’t there vestiges of it when we buy things made of foreign labor, indeed children’s labor, where workers are paid pennies a day? Yet, it’s hard for us to read and make sense of these words in our Bible, as perhaps sanctioned by God. Some who see these words on the surface as unacceptable to our enlightened sentiment run away, saying this is just one more example of harshness, injustice being touted or justified, hypocritically, in a Book that’s supposed to be about love.
So, as people of faith, as loyal readers of, and believers in, the Bible, aware of what we’ve studied together and what you’ve studied separately in the past, how would you respond to such naysayers?
Slavery was commonplace throughout the ancient world among all peoples. It would be totally unlikely for the people to whom God’s word was revealed to be alone and exempt from such universal practice.
The constraints on the practice of slavery begin straightaway in the Torah, and the limits only grow over time in the prophetic and later sacred writings, as well as in the commentaries. These include a variety of requirements of acts of mercy and justice, including: feeding the slave first, giving heed to the slave, and never striking, speaking violent words or being arrogant to the slave. Slaves were to be treated with kindness and compassion and would be freed if mistreated. (See Maimonides’ discussion of these mitzvot in the Mishneh Torah.)
Even in the words we read, slavery is not assumed or required.
The rules for bondmen, recognizing that we were once slaves in Egypt, have at their heart the power that will over time make all slavery untenable to God and for us. The “love of neighbor” principles seem inexorably to be moving to the goal of “equal in God’s eyes” for all God’s children. They have been spun out, are already at work in these ancient mitzvot, and are so much a part of the Bible’s logic that they will one day make slavery impermissible.
This becomes especially so as the mission of being a holy nation expands to bringing all the peoples together to the mountain, to God. At the revelation, it may not have seemed possible that many Canaanites would in time worship the One God. In that world, the logic of slavery may have continued to seem possible.
Yet, even the most ancient commentators started at once in interpreting the text toward a more eternal purpose. Though we won’t get into all the ways they did so in our discussion here, we know, as our faith matured and the mission expanded, the idea of enslaving people we hoped to bring together one day in faith to God was no longer compatible with the dream.
Relationship with God is available to all who choose the path, which forever changes our relationship with them, including those who have not yet made the choice but whom we hope will.
There have been narrower readings of the following verses, but the dream of them is clearly broad:
“I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” Deuteronomy 29:13-14.
“But in the end of days it shall come to pass,
That the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established at the top of the mountains,
And it shall be exalted above the hills;
And peoples shall flow unto it.
And many nations shall go and say:
‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
And He will teach us of His ways,
And we will walk in His paths.”
And Relationship to Enemies ?
5. (2 readings)
Deuteronomy 20:19 19. If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?
There is so much here in this mitzvah it is hard to classify it. It is surely about doing harm to a tree, vegetation created by God to provide us comfort and food. It is also obviously about avoiding offense to God. But I am choosing it to begin a discussion of the duties we bear our enemy. Why?
(While we might, and indeed sometimes, must wage war, we still have duties to, and are limited in how we treat, combatants and others on the enemy side. We do not have the same feelings toward them that we do those about whom we’ve spoken so far in this lesson, but the arc of God’s interest in how we live with others extends even here.
Defeating the enemy is one thing. But depriving them of a prime source of food and sustenance into the future is another. This causes pain above and beyond what is absolutely required, and it does so into the future, beyond the time of war.
Ramban sees this prohibited behavior as likely emanating from an attitude that is so insanely destructive that it seems to say there is no tomorrow. This mad impulse must be curbed.
Others take from this that we also must not burn clothes, break vessels, harm women of child bearing age, or block the flow of streams and rivers. Why do they make those extensions?
The core meaning of the mitzvah is to limit the damage we do to an enemy to winning the war. We are to avoid denying, and rather are required to preserve, the essentials of life for the citizens who live in a city we are besieging. If our civilians were in the same position as theirs, we would want no less. God demands no less for all of us.))
Pull away from the surface of actual physical war and battle. What does this teach us about people we find to be more common “enemies” in everyday life?
Perhaps we fight when we must, but desist from destroying what gives the other life, from attacking without mercy or concern about consequence, from undue damage that prevents the other from returning to life after the “battle.”)
Deuteronomy 21:10-14 10. When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11. if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13. and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.
There is a debate among the commentators about what this mitzvah requires. Some believe it’s unnatural to try to abate the passions of the soldier in war when he immediately encounters a beautiful woman in the heat of action. While he may exercise that passion on first encounter, they say, he is strictly bound to limits thereafter, limits that allow her to grieve, make decisions about her faith and future, and even leave without burden. Others argue he is constrained by these strong limits from the outset. Our sentiments most certainly side with the latter view. But, how would you justify either, and how does each inform us?
The importance of both is that they limit the powerful party in powerful ways. Not only do we have here a case of a stronger man with a weaker woman - typically; we have one of “us” on the one hand and a representative of the defeated enemy on the other. God says we must respect and honor the enemy as the enemy should honor and respect us. If we were the captive woman or her father, husband, brother, or son, we would deeply hope for and pray for such mercy, compassion, and care for her.
Also, the delay of passion forces the soldier to see the woman not as an object of physical gratification, specifically one to be used in the raw emotion of a war and conquest setting. Rather, with the imposed delay, he is to see her, make decisions about her, and act based on who she really is - needs, views, and all such unique and personal features.
Note the continuing theme here - one that we saw in the case of the slave - of an inherent hope that the other, without being forced, will choose to follow the path of God. This not only informs our treatment of the other, but it also reflects on why we must show care and compassion. We all are potentially followers of the same God. Thus, even to the enemy, we must act in a manner pleasing to God and have and show kindness to them.)
Q5. Think about what these mitzvot teach us about duties to our enemies, whether in war or generally in life?
And to Animals
The exploration in Torah of our duties to others extends all the way out to animals. Before we study any of the relevant mitzvot, let me ask you: why?
are God’s creatures, too, so we must care about and for them.
Animals have feelings, which should give rise to our compassion. Finally, we
show our true values in how we approach and deal with all living beings,
including human beings, by how we treat and act toward animals.)
6. (5 readings)
Leviticus 22:28 28. Do not slaughter a cow or a sheep and its young on the same day.
Deuteronomy 22:6-7 6. If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. 7. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.
The Torah accepts that we are by nature prone to wanting to, and perhaps needing to, be meat eaters. But it appears in many place to expect us to show a sensitivity to the feelings of animals and to reduce the pain our needs might cause them. Just as God shows us mercy, we should show mercy to God’s creatures. Living true to these mitzvot causes us to limit our urges, be respectful of God’s creatures, be mindful of animals’ feelings, and show a regard for family (that of the animals and, by extension, ours and others.
Note the way the last two mitzvot work. We release the mother, probably the most desirable source of food in the nest, in order to prevent pain for her. The young are less desirable, thus perhaps leading us to leave the nest undisturbed altogether. Further, if we feel this sort of compassion and show this kind of mercy to animals, doesn’t that condition us to treat fellow human beings in such circumstances with greater mercy as well?)
Deuteronomy 12:21 If the place where the Lord your God chooses to put his Name is too far away from you, you may slaughter animals from the herds and flocks the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and in your own towns you may eat as much of them as you want.
Leviticus 17:13 And anyone of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who reside among them, who hunts down an animal or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth.
The first mitzvah has been understood in a far broader way than it appears on the surface because of meaning accorded to the words in God’s command. It is read to impose requirements on the killing of animals for food, requirements that are designed to cause the animal the least pain possible. Knowing that, explain the purpose of these mitzvot.
They acknowledge that human beings can and will eat animals for food, but they require that compassion be shown the animals and that the killing be done humanely. They probably go further to show a preference for the vegetarian path in that they and the kosher rules that we will discuss in a future session create obstacles to the killing of animals and the eating of meat. As with the hunter approaching the bird nest, faced with all the limiting rules and required respect, we will either show great care in the eating of meat or forbear altogether.
the second mitzvah the regard one must pay to the blood of the killed animal.
It’s as if it must be buried as a body would be.)
Deuteronomy 25:4 Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.
What does this teach us?
It continues to teach of the merit of showing compassion to animals, as we should to each other. Here the animal is actually helping us increase our production and is hungry. When we see that and act with kindness and respect for its work, position, and contribution, we exhibit a virtue that ought to characterize our approach to all in such circumstances.)
Q6. Why does God care about our treatment of animals? What are the basic duties you distill from these mitzvot? Do these lessons carry over to our duties to fellow human beings? If so, how?