This Shabbat is Shemini Atzeret, and in Israel also Simchat Torah. In the diaspora we celebrate over 2 days. Shemini Atzeret (lit 8th day of gathering) marks the end of Sukkot – although we no longer take the ‘Four Species’ and while we can still sit in a Sukka, we do not say a Bracha.
After the renewal of Rosh Hashana, the purification of Yom Kippur and the joys of Sukkot, this is the final leg of the Tishrei festivals, that allows us to capture the energy and spirituality to take into the year ahead.
Over the last year Slavery has been very much in the news with ‘Black Lives Matter’ a series of race riots in many parts of the USA, and famously the statue of Edward Colston being toppled into Bristol harbour UK. (The statue has been retrieved and is due to go on display – with dents – alongside hate mail sent to the city’s black mayor).
The Torah was given over 3000 years ago, and the reading for Shemini Atzeret covers many topics including treatment of slaves. The Torah regularly reminds us that we ‘were slaves in the Land of Egypt’. We are commanded to remember our slavery roots, and on Pesach to literally taste the bitterness. There can be many reasons for this - perhaps so that we should never take freedom for granted, and also perhaps so that we should be sensitive to the plight of others.
In our 2nd Aliya (Deut 15:12) it says “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 . . . But if the servant declares, “I love my master and my wife and children, and do not want to go free,” then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost, and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life. ”
We were commanded to liberate slaves after six years – which meant that although there might have been slaves, they must have always had the knowledge and hope that they would be liberated. In addition, the laws of Shabbat command us to let our slaves rest. “Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the L-rd your G-d. On it you shall not do any work, neither you . . . nor your male or female servant . . . so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and that the L-rd your G-d brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. That is why the L-rd your G-d has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
In the words of Jonathan Sacks:
“There is little doubt that, in terms of the Torah’s value system, the exercise of power by one person over another, without their consent, is a fundamental assault against human dignity. This is not just true of the relationship between master and slave. It is even true, according to many classic Jewish commentators, of the relationship between king and subjects, rulers and ruled.
If (modern) history tells us anything, it is that G-d has patience, though it is often sorely tried. He wanted slavery abolished, but He wanted it to be done by free human beings coming to see of their own accord the evil it is and the evil it does. The G-d of history, who taught us to study history, had faith that eventually we would learn the lesson of history: that freedom is indivisible. We must grant freedom to others if we truly seek it for ourselves. “
Shabbat Shalom & Chag Sameach