Torah Weekly

For the week ending 20 May 2006 / 22 Iyyar 5766

Parshat Behar - Bechukotai

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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The Torah prohibits normal farming of the Land of Israel every seven years. This "Shabbat" for the Land is called "shemita". After every seventh shemita, the fiftieth year, yovel (jubilee) is announced with the sound of the shofar on Yom Kippur. This was also a year for the Land to lie fallow. G-d promises to provide a bumper crop prior to the shemita and yovel years. During yovel, all land is returned to its original division from the time of Joshua, and all Jewish indentured servants are freed, even if they have not completed their six years of work. A Jewish indentured servant may not be given any demeaning, unnecessary or excessively difficult work, and may not be sold in the public market. The price of his labor must be calculated according to the amount of time remaining until he will automatically become free. The price of land is similarly calculated. Should anyone sell his ancestral land, he has the right to redeem it after two years. If a house in a walled city is sold, the right of redemption is limited to the first year after the sale. The Levites' cities belong to them forever. The Jewish People are forbidden to take advantage of one another by lending or borrowing with interest. Family members should redeem any relative who was sold as an indentured servant as a result of impoverishment.


The Torah promises prosperity for the Jewish People if they follow G-d's commandments. However, if they fail to live up to the responsibility of being the Chosen People, then chilling punishments will result. The Torah details the harsh historical process that will fall upon them when Divine protection is removed. These punishments, whose purpose is to bring the Jewish People to repent, will be in seven stages, each more severe than the last. Sefer Vayikra, the book of Leviticus, concludes with the details of erachin – the process by which someone vows to give the Beit Hamikdash the equivalent monetary value of a person, an animal or property.


The Freedom Of Slavery

“For the children of Yisrael are servants to Me, they are My servants, whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt…” (25:55)

Few words have as bad a reputation as slavery. Slavery conjures up backbreaking labor, injustice, misery and a whole lexicon of negative images.

The negro spirituals that grew from the Black experience of slavery in America based themselves on the story of the Exodus: “Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land, tell old Pharaoh, to let My people go.” The prototype of all slavery is the enslavement of Egypt; the archetype of all freedom from slavery is the Exodus.

“Let my people go!” was the Torah phrase used by Civil Rights leaders in the Sixties; it was also used by the campaign to free Russian Jewry.

What is often forgotten about the quote “Let my people go!” is that the Torah didn’t say that exactly. The Torah adds a few more highly important words, “…and they will serve Me.” The freedom of the Exodus is predicated on the Jewish People becoming G-d’s servants.

If ‘slavery’ has highly negative connotations, ‘servitude’ is scarcely an improvement. Servitude sounds suspiciously like slavery. By leaving the slavery of Egypt to become the servants of G-d, did we then jump out of the frying pan into the fire?

The essence of slavery is not misery and oppression; it isn’t “All my trials, L-rd, soon be over.”The essence of slavery is that a slave is not free to express his own identity; he can only express the identity of his master. A slave is someone who is estranged from himself. A slave has no opportunity to express his essence, who he is. All he can do is to express his master’s will.

So now it all depends: if Pharaoh is your master, then your life is to express Pharaoh’s will. If G-d is your Master, then your life is to express G-d’s Will.

When we say in the Shema “Hashem Echad”, “G-d is One”, we do not mean that there is only one G-d — we mean that there is no other existence except for G-d.

Thus, nothing in the creation can have an independent purpose apart from expressing what G-d wants, for if it existed to express itself, that would mean that something could exist that was not part of G-d, that it existed in spite of G-d, as it were. By definition, this is impossible.

The Jewish People were chosen to teach the world that our entire existence it to express G-d’s Will, for in that seeming slavery is the ultimate freedom — the freedom of living a real existence.

  • Based on the Maharal’s Drasha for Shabbat HaGadol

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