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“The Transformation of Power,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

February 9, 2024 | 30 Sh’vat 5784

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

Slaves did a lot, but not because they wanted to but rather because it was the force of the whip of the taskmasters, and the hatred and fear from the Pharaoh whose command had shackled their bound feet.

This week’s portion comes after redemption at the sea and revelation at Mt. Sinai. The Israelites have certainly been on the move, escaping Egypt, crossing the sea, and gathering at the mountain. They are just in the nascent stage of learning the expectations that will bring their future lives into focus. It will come in the form of sacred obligations, the mitzvot, that will elevate their lives rather than condemn them to the heavy burden of servitude.

Ironically, the first instructions of this week’s portion, Mishpatim, spoke to the treatment of slaves. The Israelites knew slavery from one perspective but here the directive is how to treat a slave. The placement of power shifts.

These are the rules that you shall set before them:

When you acquire a Hebrew slave, that person shall serve six years—and shall go free in the seventh year, without payment.

If [a male slave] came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him. (Exodus 21:1-3)

It must have been a huge shift, but not in the way we might assume. Slavery would still exist. That was a given. There was no moral or ethical question about its existence though we might argue otherwise today. Their world and time had slaves. What would change is how slaves would be treated by the former slaves. There would be rules and regulations, responsibilities expected from those who held them. The shift of power placed expectations on their behavior.

Slavery became a reference point later in the Torah portion as a reminder of how it felt to hold no power and to be othered. That would serve as a motivating behavioral factor in how they would treat a stranger.

You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (22:20)

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (23:9)

As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites were the epitome of outsiders, of the most strange strangers turned into slaves.

Slaves no more, the Divine laid out the transformation of authority of their own status and the power they held over another. The Torah now served as their guide. It would be an exercise in control insisting they take the feelings and lives of others into consideration as they would make their way through the wilderness into the land of great promise. That would be a lesson worthy to take into the future.

Shabbat Shalom

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  • We come together as a community to celebrate Shabbat at 6:00 p.m. onsite or on ZoomFacebook Live, or our websiteWe welcome Scholar in Residence Dr. Michal Raucher.
  • Riverway gathers tonight with a new schedule. Dinner will be served at 6:30 p.m. followed by the musical service at 7:00 and a schmooze at 9:15.
  • Torah Study gathers onsite or online at 9:00 a.m. beginning with a short Shabbat service and Torah reading followed by an engaging study and conversation with Dr. Michal Raucher. All levels and abilities are welcomed!
  • Gather online to say goodbye to Shabbat with a lay-led Havdalah on Zoom at 8:00 p.m.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher