In this week’s Parshah, Moshe Rabbeinu recaps the laws of Shemittah, the Sabbatical year. Not only must Jews release their slaves at the start of this seventh year, but they must provide them with a severance package.
Not Just a Good Idea
Though severance pay is standard practice in modern economies, the Torah’s version contains an added dimension: As Midrash Tannaim paraphrases our passage, just as Hashem liberated us from Egyptian slavery, we must liberate our enslaved brethren; and just as we left Egypt with great wealth (as promised in the Bris Bein HaBesarim [Bereishis 15:14]), we must provide generously for our ex-slaves.
In other words, Jewish severance pay is a means of emulating Hashem. It’s about remembering His kindness toward us and ‘paying it back’ by helping others. To quote the Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 482), “Our glory and beauty lie in our showing compassion toward one who has served us and in sharing with him purely out of kindness.” And it’s about empathy. The more we put ourselves in our former slave’s shoes, the more we can help him, and the more we’ll want to – because we’ve been there.
Furthermore, assisting the ex-slave refines our soul, enabling us to receive all the goodness Hashem seeks to lavish on us (ibid.).
In short, severance pay isn’t just a good idea economically and morally – it’s a mitzvah!
On Our Feet
Severance pay is intended to ease the freed slave into his new life by giving him a head start toward financial independence. But he’s not the only one who needs help getting on his feet. Sooner or later, we all do in various ways. This mitzvah therefore reminds us to be on the lookout for those who are struggling or trying to start over, so we can lend a hand.
Question for Discussion:
When have you put yourself in someone else’s shoes to better understand what he or she is dealing with?
Dassi Well, a fifth-grader from New York:
I enjoy talking with my friends during class (and before and after!). But this year I started thinking that if I were the teacher, I wouldn’t appreciate that behavior. Chatter is really
disruptive and makes it difficult to teach. So, as unpleasant as it was, I stopped speaking with my friends in class and now reserve those conversations for recess.
“Rachael,” a seventh-grader from Teaneck, New Jersey:
I had the pleasure of going to camp this past summer with a lot of my friends. We really enjoy each other’s company. But my cousin was also there, and she’s very shy. I felt responsible for helping her in all areas: social interactions, getting more food at meals, etc. I resented her taking me away from my friends. But then I thought: If the positions were reversed, and I was the one needing assistance, I would definitely want my cousin to help me out. At that point, I understood the importance of helping her out, and the resentment subsided.