Free Your Serfs, or Become a Serf

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 2/2/2005

This week's Torah portion begins (Exod. 21: 1-2) with provisions limiting the nature of Israelite serfdom to a six-year period of indentured servitude. Serfs/servants are to be freed as the seventh year begins. Thus to the Shabbat (Restful-Sabbath) that even slaves enjoy on the seventh day is added this greater Shabbat of the seventh year.

The Haftarah (portion from the Prophets) that is traditionally read this Shabbat is from Jeremiah 34. It echoes and goes beyond the Torah reading with a transformative demand that all serfs be freed at once or else. OR ELSE.

What is the background?

After years of threatening the two Jewish states, the Babylonian Imperial army under Nebuchadrezzar besieged and in 586 BCE was about to conquer Jerusalem and destroy the Temple.

Facing an imminent Babylonian conquest, Jeremiah does not urge the people to seek foreign military alliances that might protect them. Instead, he demands a radical internal reform: that the people make a dror a release, a liberation for all their indentured servants, as if he were proclaiming an immediate Jubilee. The people do release these serfs, and the Babylonian menace retreats.

But once the danger has lessened, the people reverse their decision, and take back their serfs.


Jeremiah prophesies an irremediable disaster: a dror free rein "to the sword, to pestilence, and famine." In effect, he is saying that if the people will not release their slaves, they will all become slaves; if they will not let the land rest, they will lose it so that through their exile it can rest. (Jer. 34: 8-17)

If the Israelites insist on their own tyranny, they will become subjects of the Babylonian tyrant. Conversely, if they will accord freedom to their own serfs, they will be able to remain free.

This teaching is not at first glance "reasonable": How could the internal reform of a small people stave off the overwhelming power of a Babylonian army? Why would Nebuchadrezzar have pulled back when slaves were freed, and conquered when they were again reduced to slavery?

Jeremiahs analysis depends not on realpolitik but on his sense of a just universe. In that world, what we sow is what we ultimately reap. For him, the only miracle involved was the miracle of a universe in which causation works, actions have consequences.

For us, the behavior of Nebuchadrezzar may seem stranger than it did to Jeremiah. For us, it may seem a "miracle" an exception to causality that Nebuchadrezzar cared about social fluidity or social rigidity, justice or domination, among the community he conquered.

But that assessment may simply betray the shallowness of our own "realpolitik." Perhaps a conqueror of Machiavellian intelligence would see that social cohesion, a sense of sharing and of justice, would make a people far harder to conquer. And that a people riven by resentment and arrogance would be far easier.

Both Jeremiah and Nebuchadrezzar may have been far more deeply in touch with God's politics than either the rulers of the ancient Kingdom of Judah, or many of us today.

Yet Jeremiah saw beyond the moment in a way that Nebuchadnezzar could not. He saw Babylon as unjust and idolatrous on a scale even greater than that of fallen Judah. So he looked beyond the Conquest to a future redemption of all Israel.

In an extraordinarily poignant moment, when all seemed lost, he wrote a deed for the redemption of his own land a deed that would have meaning only in the practice of Israelite land law and the rhythm of the Israelite Jubilee.

Then he buried it in an earthen pot, to await the peoples self-renewal and their liberation. For a just God, infusing justice into the world, would ultimately give justice again to the community when it purged itself of its own injustice and thus became once more the community of God.

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