Table for Five: Behar

Gotta Serve Somebody
May 23, 2024

One verse, five voices. Edited by Nina Litvak and Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.

– Lev. 25:55

Bracha Goetz
Author of 42 Jewish Children’s Books

The Almighty explains here: We are not meant to be enslaved to other people. We were enslaved in the land of Egypt, and from then on, we have spiritually inherited forever more a clear understanding of the degradation that enslavement brings. God took us out of that indelibly imprinted experience. 

What we are meant to be is significantly bonded to God in awe and in love – with gratitude for our blessings. That’s the only kind of servitude needed from us, an all-encompassing appreciation for the abundance present in the life we’ve been given. 

We learn guidelines about the inspiring Jubilee year in Behar. If someone has become an indentured servant to another because he had nothing to pay back for what he took from that person but his own service, when the Jubilee year arrives, he is freed from that service. In other words, the Torah has infinitely wise consequences for doing wrong things. The consequences are designed to rehabilitate us for a designated amount of time (not indefinitely) to help us become more responsible, not degrade us. 

We are not meant to be servants indebted to each other interminably, even if we have made mistakes in life that got us into trouble at one point. 

The sparks of divinity within each of us joyfully bond with the Source of the endless great service we are continuously getting. For maximum pleasure, we only have to freely serve back one thing in this relationship: Appreciation. 

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am

The Torah’s words and wisdom are timeless. Readers have a spiritual challenge drawing meaning from texts emerging from a milieu impossibly different than ours. It is easy to be triumphant, lording over troubling texts past which we have evolved. But we do a disservice when we force ancient laws and concepts to answer to contemporary ethics. No Biblical topic seems more discordant with our society than does slavery. It is properly understood by contemporary civilization as an unforgivable scourge. The American form of it is a stain on our nation. And, of course, many modern forms of slavery persist; it is a moral duty to seek to eliminate it from the earth. 

But even within the Torah’s treatment of slavery, we see hints, even invitations, toward eradicating it. Our verse — coming at the end of a section codifying slavery’s laws — leans towards defeating it altogether. In the Torah, enslavement may have been possible (mostly emerging from an inability to pay debts, rather than the more egregiously sinful version of chattel slavery practiced by Pharaoh and … centuries of Americans), but it ultimately was temporary and yielded to the ideal, which is that each human is liberated, a servant only of God. Rashi says this verse has God reinforcing to any slave owner angry that he must release this inexpensive labor: “My contract came first.” When God created the world, with us in God’s image, and when God redeemed us from slavery in Egypt, God was communicating to us, and to humanity, that no person can ever be owned, or fully claimed, except by the Holy One.

Gavriel Sanders
Jewish Year Abroad

We’ve been slugging through tough sections of Vayikra, featuring instructions and injunctions on topics that appear foreign to us today — sacrifices, temple furnishings, purity, impurity, holiness, priestly garb and protocols, and more, including severe consequences for willful violation of certain mandates. The final verse in Behar brings us something common to us all, yet in need of clarification — this notion of “servant.“ Does the word conjure images of Downton Abbey or antebellum plantations? Aren’t servants replaceable by the will and whim of the lord or lady of the house? By extension, is our servitude with the Creator subject to capriciousness and condescension? 

As with so many verses in our Torah, context is everything. What’s the context of this declaration that we are Hashem’s servants? It’s about setting people free who fall into enslavement to debt. Lev. 25:39 bookends with 22:55 — Hashem .… brought you up out of Egypt … to be your G-d. Then we have lengthy discussion of the fair and compassionate treatment of servants. We learn about the freedom achieved through the Yovel year (Jubilee). 

Then, after a prescription of treatments that lead to freedom, we have Hashem’s second bookend statement that we are His servant by virtue of being freed to a life sentence of service. What’s that look like? It simply means Torah living and learning — following a path of wisdom that gives us boundaries placed for our enrichment, so that we can ultimately liberate others along the way. 

David Porush
Ph.D. student, teacher, writer

Creation was a good trick. Flooding and erasing the world to start all over was an impressive second act. But the Exodus is really our origin story. Every day in every prayer service, we acknowledge God the Liberator Who took us out of Egypt much more often than we thank God of Creation or God of Second Chances. 

Beyond the cinematic miracles, let’s appreciate the realpolitik here. The socio-political genius of freeing a nation of slaves to forge a grateful new nation has no parallel in history. The Hebrews are singularly primed to trade material slavery for submission to a gleaming vision where everything and every instant is imbued with holiness and their – our – job is to manifest it. 

Armed with the phonetic alphabet, another singular gift from God, the newly liberated literate nation back at Sinai accepts  – and reads the particulars – of their new contract and instructions on how to fulfill it. From this moment on every instant of our existence is to be an avodah, a service. Worldly slavery is just a temporary accommodation, as parsha Behar tells us. You can’t really belong to someone else when God owns you. Or HaChaim wrote, “They are My slaves since they are of sacred origin, their souls and their bodies are intrinsically holy.” The Exodus obligated them to accept this fundamental truth. To this day when we thank Him for taking us out of Egypt, we willingly, gratefully enslave ourselves to a cosmic reality of ubiquitous, miraculous, intrinsic holiness.

Sara Blau
Prolific author

Ask an addict who has hit rock bottom if he enjoys the substance he abuses. Sure, he may still derive pleasure from it, but the party is over. He no longer can tolerate the substance, and likely hates it. It no longer represents freedom and ease, but has morphed into an abuser, hijacking the addict’s brain and dictating to the addict to search for more. This is mental jail. 

Freedom seems to be the ability to think, say or do, whatever one pleases. However, giving into every desire and temptation seldom brings true peace, but rather wreaks havoc and destruction. Being at the mercy of one’s emotions or temptations is not freedom. 

What is freedom? Paradoxically, it is another form of servitude. Not being a slave to a person, place, or thing, but being a servant of G-d. As G-d Himself says “For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt.” G-d removed us from slavery in Egypt to be free to serve Him. Being enslaved by the self is a form of bondage, while transcending the self for the sake of G-d’s will brings true freedom. Living for a higher purpose frees us from the constraint of our ego and limitations, and gives the soul the ability to live a life that is congruent with our true desires. Slavery to G-d brings about the ultimate satisfaction, a sense of meaning in fulfilling the purpose of creation. 

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

The Arrival of the Zombie Apocalypse

When a society is sick, growing numbers of people can only find the sense of meaning and belonging they need in a group, or movement, that claims to have all the answers for their problems.

Is it Antisemitic to Celebrate 10/7?

President Biden’s position is consistent with the definition of antisemitism that has been adopted by the 33 countries belonging to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Noa Argamani’s Secret Annex

Like Anne, Noa was secreted away in an apartment while a war raged outside, unsure if she would ever again be allowed to walk free.

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.