So when we read the sidra Mishpatim, centrepiece of the civil law of the Torah, we are both impressed at the quality of the formulation of the laws and puzzled at why it begins, Ki tikneh eved ivri – “when you acquire a Hebrew servant… ” (Ex. 21:2).
Why start with servants? How about the higher ranks of society?
It could be that this law establishes a basic principle of the Jewish legal system that the law is not merely, or first and foremost, for the “important” people in society the rich, powerful, aristocratic and famous. The touchstone of a legal system is how it deals with the poor and disadvantaged, with servants, for example, and not just their masters.
In a Jewish court, an “important” person must not be treated with more deference than a humbler member of society. As last week’s sidra told us, “You (all of you!) shall be to Me a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).
Unfortunately it often happens that people insist on their importance being acclaimed, applauded and acknowledged (“I have to sit at the top table!”… “I have to be mentioned first!”… “My name has to be in golden letters!”).
The Jewish principle is quite different. Though not formulated in the Talmud, it is so well known that everyone thinks it is Talmudic, and indeed it does express Talmudic ethics.
It is, “Whoever chases after kavod (honour), kavod runs away from him: but whoever runs away from kavod, kavod pursues him”.