There are three mitzvot in this week’s parashah that allude to the basic theological claim that we as a people were freed by God from slavery in Egypt so that we might serve only the One who created the world. The first is a commandment not to return fugitive slaves:


You shall not deliver a slave to his master who has escaped to you from his master. He shall dwell with you in the place that he may choose within one of your gates that he likes best. Do not wrong him. (Devarim 23:16-17)


Interestingly, slavery in Egypt is not mentioned here. It is mentioned elsewhere:


You shall not pervert the justice due to a foreigner or to an orphan, and you shall not take a widow’s clothing as collateral. You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Eternal your God redeemed you from there. This is why I command you to do this thing. (24:17-18)


When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not take what you left behind. It shall be for the foreigner, for the orphan, and for the widow. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. That is why I command you to do this thing. (24:21-22)


The Sefer Hachinuch, when it describes the purpose of the mitzvah not to return fugitive slaves, does not frame it as an issue of justice due to the fugitive slave, but as one of the holiness of the Land of Israel.  As the Talmud (Gittin 45a) explains the commandment, we are dealing specifically with a case of a slave who escapes to the Land of Israel. The Jew to whom the fugitive slave comes for safety must write the slave a document of release. When Jew releases a non-Jewish slave from slavery, the slave is effectively converted to Judaism. As to the purpose of the mitzvah, the Sefer Hachinuch writes:


From the roots of the commandment: That which we remembered that God wanted for the sake of the honor of the Land, that one who flees to it to be rescued from slavery. This is in order to place in his heart the honor of the place, and to establish awe of Hashem, may Hashem be elevated, in our hearts while we are there.


According to this, we are commanded to free fugitive slaves for God’s sake, and to inspire awe of God and a sense of the holiness of the Land of Israel in us and in the fugitive slave. Compassion for the slave is not mentioned, nor is a need to enact justice for the slave. We do, however, see a concern for our compassion regarding the widow, the foreigner, and the orphan. Regarding the commandment not to hold a widow’s clothing as collateral, the Sefer Hachinuch wrote:


From the roots of the commandment: Hashem cares for Hashem’s creations, and wanted to give us merit to acquire for our souls the quality of compassion, and commanded us to be kind to the widow, as her heart is broken, and she worries what would happen if she did not offer her garment as collateral. But all the ways of the Torah are ways of pleasantness, and its paths are peace.


Regarding the gleanings of our fields, the Sefer Hachinuch says that we are commanded in this, at least partly, to develop a sense of generosity.


 While people exist on their own terms, and they do not exist so that we might be able to hone our spiritual attributes, the opportunities to do so cannot be ignored. Especially now, in the month of Elul, it is our task to hone our compassion and our sense of holiness. The Sefer Hachinuch reminds of that during this time of the year. Let us go into the High Holidays with an awareness that our senses of generosity, compassion, and holiness need constant cultivation. 


Shabbat Shalom!

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