“You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such may you treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kinsman, no-one shall rule be’parech over the other”
Describing Israel’s slavery in Egypt, Exodus uses a term, be’parech, that occurs elsewhere only in this week’s parashah. Be’parech is equated with ruthlessness: “The Egyptians made the Israelites work ruthlessly” (Ex: 1:13).
Yet its use in Behar suggests calls for a reconsideration. Leviticus 25:35-43 prescribes the treatment of Israelites who fall on hard times and put themselves under the protective authority of a kinsman. In these cases, the Israelite employer must not treat his unfortunate kinsman as a permanent slave, but rather as a temporary hired labourer, free to leave his employment in the Jubilee year.
An Israelite may, however, take permanent slaves from among the nations: “You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such may you treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kinsman, no-one shall rule be’parech over the other.” This verse contrasts what is acceptable for Israelites and non-Israelites. While a measure of distinction is to be expected, translating be’parech as “ruthlessly” is beyond the pale. It would imply that the Torah protects Israelites from workplace exploitation, but licenses it for foreign slaves. How can we square that with the repeated reminder that we were slaves in the Egypt?
No, our parashah is not allowing us to exploit foreign workers while keeping the cushy jobs for each other. It is contrasting the legal terms of employment: temporary contracts for Israelites versus employment in perpetuity for non-Israelites. From a modern-day perspective, even this distinction may seem unfair. But, especially in its ancient context, it is a world away from permitting “ruthless” exploitation of workers. We need to think again about what Pharaoh did to us in Egypt, and we need to think even harder about what we ourselves overlook in workplaces at home and abroad.