The very first law in the Torah after the description of the giving of the Torah at Sinai is the law of the Jewish slave: “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.”1

Of all the laws in the Parshah—and there are many—why begin with the “regressive” topic of 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 start with some other universally appealing law, one that would clearly showcase the wisdom 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.

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 superior representation and those on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

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 select group of lawyers. Anyone who cannot afford these 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 focused 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.”2

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 a poverty-stricken individual who chose to sell himself, or he’s a thief who stole and was unable to pay back the amount stolen. In both cases, Jewish law specifies that he must be treated with utmost care—at times, even better than the master.

The Torah is giving us a profound message, one that challenges us to this day. The Torah is telling us that the first priority of the legal system must be not the people who can afford the best representation, not the people who can afford to lobby for laws benefiting the powerful, but rather 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: we must ensure that the slave is released on the seventh year.

For justice is measured by how we treat the thief and the pauper. To create a just society, we must start with the people at the bottom.