Living the Golden RuleJanuary 20, 2014 - 5:00 am
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.—Exodus 21:2
The Torah portion for this week is Mishpatim, which means “laws,” from Exodus 21:1–24:18, and the Haftorah is from Jeremiah 34:8–22.
In a counterintuitive phenomenon, victims of abuse are more likely to become abusers themselves. While we might assume that a child who suffered from parental abuse would be less likely to treat his or her own child that way, the reality is that 30 percent of abused children become abusers. Similarly, statistics show that people who were bullied as children often grow up to become adult bullies.
Perhaps that’s why this week’s Torah portion begins with laws about how to treat slaves. These were among the first laws given to the people since God’s revelation on Mount Sinai. Why was this area of law among the first to be addressed? Surely there were more relevant commandments needed at this critical juncture in time! In addition, the Sages note the irony that the children of Israel had only just been freed from slavery, and already were discussing enslaving others?
That is exactly the point, the Sages explain. The fact that the Israelites had been victims of slavery and abuse put them at great risk for becoming abusers themselves. For hundreds of years, the Israelites were fed a steady diet of humiliation, cruelty, and exploitation. Now, they were at risk for passing on what they received to others. “No more!” said God. The cycle of abuse would not continue – it had to end. To ensure that the bitterness of Egyptian enslavement didn’t resurface, God established a set of laws that protected a slave and ensured his fair and dignified treatment.
The abuse that the Israelites suffered came from being enslaved. But we all have experienced some kind of hurt or abuse in our lives. Perhaps we have been hurt deeply by the betrayal of someone we thought was a close friend, or maybe as children we felt neglected and unloved by our parents. We might have had a teacher who humiliated us or a sports coach who talked down to us. It’s impossible to be human and not be hurt by someone else at one point or another. But what happens next?
No one chooses to be hurt, but we do get to choose what we do with the experience. We can allow our experiences to change us into hateful, resentful, and ultimately, vengeful people. Or, we can use our hurt as a catalyst for becoming more empathetic, compassionate, and kind people. Our choice has to be a conscience one — we must commit to living the Golden Rule. As the Sages explain it: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others.”