Behar: For They Are Servants of the Lord

I write these words on the fiftieth anniversary of the State of Israel’s Independence, from behind prison walls, only a few days after being tossed behind bars after my sentencing of nine months in jail. In parshat Behar I will seize the opportunity to show a surprisingly similar connection between my situation and a teaching found in Midrash Raba on parshat Behar: “And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all it’s inhabitants” (a passage referring to slaves).

What is so terrible about being a servant? One of the central themes of parshat Behar is the shame that exists for the Jew who is a slave. “To Me are the children of Israel servants, for they are servants of the Lord, who took them out of the land of Egypt.” We see that the Torah finds great fault with the idea of a Jew becoming a slave. Therefore, the Torah places boundaries on servitude, (both regarding a person who sells himself out of poverty, or because of thievery) and limits the time of servitude to a maximum of six years. A slave who wants to extend his time of servitude must have his master bore a hole in his ear as is described in parshat Mishpatim, and then he remains a slave only until the 50th Jubilee year.

What is the reason? The answer lies in our sages words (Kidushim 22): “Why is the ear different from any other part of the body? G-d said, the ear that heard My voice on Mount Sinai, when I said, to Me are Israel servants, and not servants to other servants” (i.e. other Jews). What is so awful about being a slave? After all, we are referring to a person who is more than likely serving an acquaintance of his, which is certainly not a sin in andof itself, nor does it cause him to sin in any way. If so, what prevents a slave from being a most righteous and G-d fearing man? What is so bad about being a slave?

The answer is that a slave is not merely a servant. Rather, he is a person who relinquishes his individuality in drastic fashion to another human being, flesh and blood. The desires of the slave himself become the desires of his master instead. He is completely nullified as an independent entity. He hands over his identity and individuality to the whims and desires offlesh and blood, and as a result, forfeits responsibility over his own life. And so the slave does not have the opportunity to work on his spirituality, or enrich it, and thusly he cannot advance towards the true purpose of being a Jew – sanctifying G-d’s Name and coming closer to G-d’s attributes. A Jew must be his own individual, a free man, submitting himself only to G-d’s will, and responsible for his own actions and his direction in life. A slave is neutralized from the very outset, and cannot achieve his goal as a Jew, since he his wholly subservient to his master.

The Jubilee year sets forth the notion that every Jew is truly free. True freedom, and not the decadent concept of “freedom” which is so prevalent in alien western culture. Rather it is a freedom of spirit in which the Jew removes from upon himself the yoke of foreign concepts and replaces it with the only yoke that he is allowed (and obligated) to accept – the Yoke of Heaven. As stated by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi: “Slaves of the times (i.e.- the latest American craze) are slaves of slaves: Slaves of G-d are truly free”.

Though there is much disgrace in slavery, we see that the Torah, for a limited amount of time, prescribes this form of punishment. The Torah does not prescribe prison, despite the fact that today prison is considered the most humane, effective and “progressive” form of punishment. But anyone who understands prison life knows that it brings about a situation even worse than that of slavery. For while a slave may be nullified, he is at least in the shade of his master – something which gives him content and identity. In contrast, the situation of a prisoner is one in which a person loses all semblance of a human being. He is pushed into a small cell (and in so doing, the authorities think they have solved their problems), and treated like an animal. All concept of time is lost, as the prisoner lies on his bed all day, serving no purpose, bored to death and void of any content in his life. All that concerns him is the taking care of his most base physical needs. Most prisoners lose all hope in themselves and in their future. They abandon all sense of responsibility due to the lack of a daily regiment. This inactivity increases the prisoners feeling of emptiness, and so it is no wonder that there is such a high percentage of ex-prisoners returning to crime, a destructive and vicious cycle.

But for those few who possess a sense of self-worth and purpose, being behind prison walls does not hamper their individuality from shining forth. It is as if the prison walls and the prison guards do not exist. For them, it does not matter where they are. On the contrary, the experience of being behind bars serves as a catalyst, invigorating their spirit and confirming their inner sense of independence and conviction.

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