So Poor You Sell Your Daughter
Sometimes when we read the parsha (weekly Torah portion), we are jolted by the disparity between the modern, privileged lives we live in the 21st century and the reality reflected in the Torah and the world in which it appeared. Parashat Mishpatim (Shemot/Exodus 21-24) this week gives us a lot of material to consider.
My colleague from Melton, Rabbi Morey Schwartz (ordained by Yeshiva University), wrote his commentary on Shemot/ Exodus 21:7-11 that he entitled: Selling your daughter as a maidservant -where he wrestles with this very problematic text, indicative of a time in which people were so poor that the only thing they could offer to repay a debt or get money to stay alive was to sell themselves or a child into indentured servitude or a life as a kind of concubine.
I'm going to focus on another part of the parsha that also highlights extreme poverty:
Here we have a person who is so poor that he has to give his only garment--likely a covering that he would wrap himself up in at night like a blanket--to a creditor, until he earns enough money to pay off his debt.
Imagine what that must have been like! The only thing you own that is worth anything (other than your body and your labor) is a blanket. That's it. That's how poor and marginalized you are.
This is likely an even worse state of being than a homeless person today. Because while a homeless person may also not own very much (we’ve all seen them pushing a shopping cart with what appears to be all their worldly possessions), today there are government programs, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other safety net possibilities that simply didn’t exist in ancient times.
In Devarim/Deuteronomy 24:10-13 this same mitzvah is reiterated with the additional warning not to enter the debtors home (probably more like a hovel) to seize the pledge every day, but instead, to wait outside for the debtor until he gives the cloak to you each day, lest you violate his dignity and his small personal sanctuary.
And what's even more remarkable is that these verses from our Torah were not theoretical. Based on archaeology, we find the Torah and these mitzvot of compassion were indeed considered the constitution of our nascent Israelite society!
What's the proof? Archaeologists have found a broken ostracon (a potsherd or a small piece of stone that has writing scratched into it) from the 7th century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era, i.e., before year 0) at a site on Israel's coast between Jaffa and Ashdod.
On this piece of pottery was found the complaint of a reaper (field laborer) from Judea to a government official that a person named Hashvayahu ben Shova took away his garment and his fellow reapers will testify as witnesses in his favor.
“May the official, my lord, hear the plea of his servant. Your servant is working in the harvest; your servant was at Hasar-Asam (when the following incident occurred). Your servant did his reaping, finished, and stored (the grain) a few days ago before stopping (work). When your servant had finished (his) reaping and had stored it a few days ago, Hoshayahu ben Shabay came and took your servant's garment. When I had finished my reaping, at that time, a few days ago, he took your servant's garment. All my companions will vouch for me, all who were reaping with me in the heat of the sun: my companions will vouch for me (that) truly I am guiltless of any in[fraction]. [(So) please return] my garment. If the official does not consider it an obligation to return [your servant's garment, then have] pity upon him [and return] your servant's [garment] from that motivation. You must not remain silent [when your servant is without his garment].”
All of this demonstrates that even 2500+ years ago the poor and marginalized in Israelite society felt empowered to protest and find redress through Torah law when their rights were trampled on.
How extraordinary! How far advanced beyond other civilizations at the time!
And yet, as Rabbi Schwartz writes below, as much as I love Torah and its wisdom, I too can't forget the maidservant sold into servitude:
THIS YEAR I find myself unable to stop dwelling on the image of the father, so desperate that he is forced to indenture his daughter to servitude, to pay off debts, to secure her survival.
THIS YEAR my heart goes out to this poor young maiden, deprived of ever knowing true-love, of ever drifting into the arms of the man of her dreams - destined instead to make due with her lot and hope that perhaps the man she does end up with will give her some small measure of happiness...
The wonders of life, many of them ever so basic - we fail to celebrate them in all of their simple wonder: the blessings are the curse, making us indifferent to the suffering that surrounds us, making us forget to be grateful.
I am thankful this year that for some blessed reason, my eyes are glued to the maiden - hoping that paying her a little attention will make her smile - even just a little bit - as Torah scholars once again step right over her - indifferent to her plight - focused only on their holy quest for greater erudition, elevating the Torah at her tragic expense.
Perhaps you know such a maiden?
Read more at RABBI SCHWARTZ'S BLOG