Ki Tetze | Do Not Ill-Treat Him
You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him. (Devarim 23:16-17)
Rabbi Yoshiya (Gittin 45a) explains that the Torah here speaks of a non-Jewish slave who ran away to Israel from his master in the Diaspora. The Torah teaches that you ought not send the slave back to his master in the Diaspora; rather, you are to take care of him in Israel. The Rambam (Hil. Avadim 8:10) explains that an attempt is to be made to get the master to free the slave, but if the master does not comply, the court can override his rights to the slave and set the latter free.
The Torah concludes this passage with the phrase, "lo tonennu" (translated above "do not ill-treat him"), meaning that you should not verbally abuse this person. This comes in addition to the prohibition against verbal abuse of any Jew (Vayikra 25:17), and the special prohibition against verbal abuse of a stranger in the land (Vayikra 19:33). Thus, this verse adds a new prohibition - mocking a slave who has come to the land of Israel.
Here the Torah makes special mention of people who are particularly at risk for abuse. In several other places, the Torah similarly expresses concern for those in especially vulnerable positions. For example, when the Torah (Shemot 21:10) discusses the Jewish maidservant who marries her master, it adds that "He must not withhold her food, her clothing or her conjugal rights" (from which we learn a husband's obligations in general).
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch notes this phenomenon and offers a perceptive explanation for it. While the mitzva of "food, clothing and conjugal rights" applies to every husband and wife, the Torah chooses to discuss it specifically in the context of the Jewish maidservant. Why? The case of a marriage between a master and a maidservant is a clear example of social inequality. The girl was sold by her father, which indicates her low social status, since the Halakha (Rambam, Hil. Avadim 4:2) states that one should not sell his daughter into servitude unless he has no food to eat (what father would sell his daughter if he had a choice?). Her relationship with her husband commences with her being his maidservant. The process of yi'ud, through which she becomes his wife, only comes at a later stage. One might have thought that the normal obligations of a husband to his wife to do not apply in this case. Therefore, the Torah emphasizes that this woman is to be treated no differently from any other. Furthermore, the Torah goes out of its way to teach the requirements of every husband to his wife in the context of the maidservant.
Another example appears in this week's parasha, with regard to the prohibition of hitting a fellow Jew, and even hitting oneself (Devarim 25:3). This prohibition is taught in the context of a person who receives lashes in court. Since the person being beaten is "wicked" (25:1, 2) and deserving of punishment, the person appointed by the court to deliver the lashes might get caught up in the action and continue to beat the person a fortieth time (beyond the thirty-nine lashes he deserves). For this reason, the Torah teaches the prohibition of hitting a fellow Jew precisely in this context, with the obvious implication that it is prohibited a fortiori to hit innocent people.
One could say something similar in the case of the escaped slave. What is the status of this slave who ran away from his master? He obviously has no means, and when he ran away, he chose to come to the land of Israel. As a free man, he will now become a full member of the Jewish people, and he needs support to be able to thrive.
With regard to the general prohibition against verbal abuse, the rabbis take a very harsh approach, comparing verbal abuse in the form of humiliation to spilling blood (Bava Metzia 58b). Furthermore, the more sensitive and emotionally vulnerable the person abused, the more severe is the violation.
It is for this reason that there is an additional prohibition against abusing a stranger, and yet another in our case. If you say something bad about a person who has "thick skin," he will just go on as if nothing has occurred. But if you speak about someone who is very sensitive, you can destroy his whole world. Thus, in terms of the damage caused, it is more severe to mock someone who is sensitive.
Correspondingly, it is also a more severe violation on the part of the person abusing if the victim is affected by what he says. The moral turpitude displayed is of a much higher order. People often tend to mock those who are weak. The Torah goes out of its way to emphasize how problematic this is, providing an additional prohibition against abusing the stranger, and yet another against abusing the slave who has fled to the land of Israel.
The Torah teaches us that we need to go out of our way to help such people, doing whatever we can to enable them to thrive. The attention paid to the escaped slave teaches us to have this special sensitivity, raising our already high moral standard for those in need.
[This sicha was delivered at se'uda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Ki Teitzei, 5762 (2002).]
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