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Parshat Behar-2024

Rabbi David Laor

Shabbat Shalom!​​​​​​​

This week's Torah portion – Parashat Behar – raises one of the most difficult, interesting and complicated topics in Judaism – slavery.  Unfortunately, even today, slavery still exists in some countries – albeit not in the brutal form that was prevalent among ancient people, nor as it existed 200 years ago here in the southern United States.  Today, slavery is a crime against basic human rights.  Until the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, slavery was commonplace and part of the reality.  There are even commentators who justify slavery in Biblical times arguing that the only difference between the "nochri" (non-Jewish) slave of Biblical times and today's foreign worker, servant, or cleaner is a semantic one.  The Biblical non-Jewish slave had many options to become free – but often was not interested in taking advantage of them.  In exchange for his/her work, the non-Jewish slave was given food and shelter by their Hebrew master – two things that were not easily available to him/her as a free person.

In our Torah reading, the passage that describes the permission to keep non-Jewish (Canaanite) slaves reads as follows:

And as for thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, whom thou may have: of the nations that are round about you, of them shall you buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them may you buy, and of their families that are with you, which they have begotten in your land; and they may be your possession. And you may make them an inheritance for your children after you, to hold for a possession: of them may you take your bondmen forever; but over your brethren the children of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with rigor”. Leviticus 25: 44-46

From this we learn the following main points:

  1. It was permissible and even legitimate to purchase and own slaves.
  2. Slaves could only be purchased from among the surrounding non-Jewish nations.
  3. It was permissible to inherit your slaves to your children.
  4. It was forbidden to make fellow Israelites work in slave labor.

The Babylonian Talmud extensively discusses the conditions of the slaves and their options to be freed (especially in the Jubilee year).  The Rambam - in his writings on the laws of slavery and slaves – discusses the conditions under which one must keep slaves and the need to provide for the slave's needs with dignity.  There is no moral discussion of the moral or humane way that the people of Israel are obligated to act towards the non-Jewish slaves or towards those whose misfortune led them to become prisoners of war and then slaves.  The Torah mentions numerous times, "You were slaves in Egypt" as a symbol of the tolerance and morality that must be shown towards the slaves, warning us against acting cruelly or unjustly towards them.

Most of the halachic sources that deal with these issues as if the most natural thing in Judaism was slavery! But these laws are not the issue!  The real question is why God, the Creator and Master of the Universe, the God that took the people of Israel out of slavery, would allow slavery to begin with. The question is not whether the slave is Jewish or non-Jewish, Hebrew or Canaanite; a prisoner of war or purchased in the Jerusalem slave market, or whether he might go free in 7 or 50 years.  The fact that there was so much discussion of the details and laws surrounding slavery is surreal – especially given that it is found in the Torah which we believe has its origin in God. This entire topic should have been entirely irrelevant coming from a Divine source.  Wouldn't it just have been simpler to just ban slavery?  Shouldn't the passage have read, "You shall not enslave anyone; you were slaves in Egypt; I am the Lord Your God". Have you ever considered this?

Biblical researchers will continue this logical train of thought and ask, why didn't the Bible just ban incest?  Isn't it logical not to have sexual relations with family members?  Or even worse – not to have sexual relations with animals?  Isn't this absurd?  And the most surreal of all – to sacrifice daughters and sons on an altar?

Why is all this even written in the Torah?  The slavery topic pales in comparison when we think of these issues. Commentators argue that the Torah is universal and timeless; there is no concept of early or late in the Torah.  Whatever is written in it was relevant, is relevant, or will be in the future (for example, the building of the Third Temple when the Messiah comes).

 In our Torah reading, we discover two important things from the text:

  1. Everything written in the Torah was relevant but does not necessarily continue to be relevant in our time – including slavery and the other examples I mentioned above,
  2. Most cultures have progressed tremendously in the last thousand years.  Slavery is no longer looked upon favorably.  Still, there are tremendous moral gaps between the Torah and the nations (such as those in the Far East) that do not embrace the Bible.

We encounter many cultures with very different values than our own. It is surprising to learn that in India, child slavery still exists and that there are ethnic sub-groups like the Sudra who are born to become servants.  We might be surprised to learn that society determines that South American Indians are destined from birth to be uneducated servants with little or no rights. Again, we ask why is this written in the Torah?

One can see why it is important that non-Jewish slavery is written in the Torah, for had it not, we would not be able to see how far we have morally come from the people of Israel in the desert to the people of Israel in the 21st century.  Perhaps Parashat Behar is actually relevant today so that we can use it when we come to other countries with moral demands – just as Mexican president Juarez did for the Indians and as Mahatma Ghandi did against the caste system in India.

In a beautiful Midrash about the coming of the Messiah, it is written:  "God! When will the Messiah come?  And from on high God asks, my dear children, when will you bring the Messiah?" So too Rav Kook said, "One must not wait for the Messiah to establish the Jewish state; one must establish the Jewish state so that the Messiah will have a place to come".  Maybe our message is similar, let us not ask why the Torah writes about slavery, but rather acknowledge that it is our job to make sure that there is no longer slavery in the world. During this war in Israel, when 128 people are still deprived of going out, freely moving, even walking to see the sunlight, and getting to be together with their families, freedom has taken on such a significant value that it is a good time to remember how beautiful it is to just go outside! Look at the moon, and feel the sun warm our bodies... precious freedom shall come for all of them! And not only among the people of Israel but for the entire world. Amen.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi David Laor

May 24th, 2024

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784