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Legal Priority

Legal Priority 

The first law recorded in the portion that follows the giving of the Torah, the portion of Mishpatim that discusses much of the civil law, is the law of the Jewish slave. The Torah states:

Should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work [for] six years, and in the seventh [year], he shall go out to freedom without charge.

Of all the laws in the Parsha, why began with the “regressive” law that discusses slavery? Is this the first, and most important law the Jews have to hear? I know many Rabbis who have secretly confessed to wishing this law was sandwiched somewhere in the third reading, where, hopefully, it would not draw attention. I mean who wants to talk about slavery in the 21st century? Why could we not choose to start with some other universally appealing law, that would showcase the superiority of the values of the Torah's civil law?

Personally, I have come to love talking about, and highlighting, this law. Because once you dig deep you discover that this law speaks directly to the core issue that American justice is struggling with in the 21st century.    

Yes, for the most part, we have a great Justice system. But once we take a careful look we discover that, often, there exists a justice gap between people who can afford great representation, to people on the bottom of the social-economic ladder, who often do not get proper justice.

There are numerous examples that can be discussed. Here is just one angle that recently appeared in the media: increasingly, the Supreme court is most likely to hear cases advocated by a small group of lawyers. Anyone who cannot afford this select group of lawyers has a significantly harder chance of being heard.

In an article titled The Advocacy Gap, the New Yorker reports:

The phenomenon has been described before. Richard Lazarus, a professor at Harvard Law School, wrote in 2008 about the success of the Court bar in persuading the Justices to take cases, and why that is noteworthy: “In the world of Supreme Court advocacy, persuading the Court to grant a petition is the single most difficult challenge.” He detailed how the élite bar helped to persuade the Court to back corporations in antitrust, tort, and other kinds of business cases. In 2007, for instance, the Court struck down a century-old ban on manufacturers and distributors setting minimum retail prices for products. Reuters focussed on more recent examples, such as the 2011 rejection of a class-action lawsuit against Walmart to stop discrimination against women, which made it a lot more difficult to bring class-action cases in general.

In addition, Lazarus warned that the emergence of the modern Supreme Court bar created another, related problem: hiring advocates with strong records at the high court is expensive. He foresaw an “advocacy gap in the Court between those who can pay and those who cannot, which would be bad for the legal profession, the Court, and its rulings.”

Now, let’s go back to the Torah. Who is the Jewish slave? He is a person on the lowest rung of the social ladder. He is poverty stricken, or a thief who stole and is unable to pay back the theft.

The Torah is giving us a profound message, one that is, until this day, deeply challenging for us to accept. The Torah is telling us that the first priority of the law, and the legal community, must be, not the people who can afford the best representation, not the people who can afford lobbyist to write laws benefiting the powerful. The first priority of the legal community must be the lowest person in society. By placing the Law of the Hebrew slave first, the Torah is telling us that, if we are to achieve justice, we must ensure that the weakest amongst us receive justice. For justice is measured by how we treat the thief and the pauper. To create a just society we must start with the people on the bottom. We must ensure that the slave is released on the seventh year.  

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