In another week we will be entering the month of Nisan, the month of our freedom. The rights of a human being to live in freedom have been the subject of debate and dispute for generations. The Torah took a bold step when it proclaimed, "You shall not deliver to his master a slave who has escaped to you from his master. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in whatever place he chooses within one of your gates, where it is good for him; you shall not oppress him" (Deuteronomy 23:16-17). This law applied to non-Israelites, not only to Israelite slaves. It was this very question of the escaped slave that was disputed in America as late as 1850. It was not until March 1862 that Congress forbade all Union army officers from returning fugitive slaves and passed the Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves, effectively annulling the Fugitive Slave Law. If freedom is so important, is it not ironic that the first laws set down for the fledgling people of Israel after their liberation from Egyptian bondage are laws of slavery - "When you acquire a Hebrew slave..." (Exodus 21:2)? Especially troubling is the verse that states that if a slave dies after being beaten by his owner, if he has survived even for a day, "he is not to be avenged, since he is the other's property" (Exodus 21:20). How does one square this with the principle that "whoever sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall his blood be shed, for God created the human being (Adam) in His image" (Genesis 9:6)? Of course we could also ask how the United States squared slavery with its declaration that "all men are created equal." How was it that England, with its history of human rights, abolished slavery and the slave trade only 200 years ago? It often takes some time before great principles are completely understood and translated into proper norms. In other words, some of the precepts of the Torah do not necessarily represent the final word of God, but rather a gradual change leading toward that which would be the ultimate goal. Laws of slavery do not mean that God desires slavery to be a part of human existence, but that given the fact that slavery existed everywhere and could not suddenly be eradicated, it must at least be controlled and modified. It is not accidental that the first thing we are told about slavery is that "in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment" (Exodus 21:2). We are not told to acquire a slave, but we are commanded to let that slave go free after six years. The emphasis of the Torah is not on the fact that we should have slaves, but on the way in which slaves must be treated as human beings, not as chattel, and the legal limitations put upon the rights of the "owner." The Ten Commandments, for example, specify that "your male or female slave" shall not work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10). Slavery was not abolished, which would be the desired goal, but it was modified. The later development of rabbinic law certainly recognized this trend, as we can see from such statements as that in Tosefta Baba Kama 7:5 interpreting the statement in Exodus 21:6 that if a slave decides not to go free after six years as is his right, "his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life" - the ear, which heard at Sinai "You are My slaves" (Leviticus 25:42) but nevertheless preferred subjection to men rather than to God, deserves to be pierced. This tendency in Jewish law can be seen even more clearly in the rabbinic enactments, which, in effect, made slavery inoperative. For example, Jewish law prohibits the Hebrew slave from washing his master's feet, putting on his shoes, carrying his things before him to the bathhouse, supporting him by the hips when going up stairs, carrying him in a litter, a chair or a sedan chair. Nor may his master put him to work in anything where he has to serve the public, force him to change his trade or work at night. (Mechilta Nezikin 1). The popular saying was that if one acquires a slave, one acquires a master. Slavery, even if only in the form of the denial of freedom, cannot be countenanced. Human beings have the right to freedom from such oppression and every society has the obligation to grant asylum to such a person. In the words of the Torah, we are obligated to permit that person to remain in a land of freedom - "He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in whatever place he chooses within one of your gates, where it is good for him; you shall not oppress him." The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.