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A Master-less Perspective

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

The beginning of Parshat Behar describes the mitzvah of counting up to the Yovel year - the fiftieth year - when slaves are freed and lands are returned to their original owners. What’s immediately puzzling is the choice of pronoun used in the language of the commandment. Previously, concerning the mitzvah of counting the Omer - a similar command to count seven weeks, seven times - the language chosen was “וספרתם לכם” - plural; however, by Yovel, when the Torah commands to count seven years, seven times, the language used is “וספרת לך[1] - singular. Why is the mitzvah of counting the Omer directed to the nation (plural), but the mitzvah of counting for Yovel directed towards the individual (singular)?[2] To compound this question, two pesukim later, beginning with the command to ‘sanctify the fiftieth year’ and continuing through the prohibition of planting during that period and the obligation of declaring freedom for all the slaves,  the Torah then switches to the more expected plural language - “וקדשתם”, “לא תזרעו” and “וקראתם”!

 

To answer these questions, we have to recall the first time the laws concerning Jewish slaves were mentioned, back at the beginning of Parshat Mishpatim. There, the Torah dictates that a Jewish slave may only be enslaved for six years; the seventh year, he must be set free[3]. However, the Torah then states that if at the end of those six years, the slave declares that he loves his master, his wife and his children[4] the slave may stay on, past the original six years, until the Yovel year. A question needs to asked: if the Torah had just stated that a slave may stay for only six years, how can it be that it then states that ‘it’s also okay’ if he stays on longer? Is six years a rule or a mere recommendation?!

 

If we zoom out and look at all the different requirements of Jewish slavery as one larger picture, a common message/theme is readily recognized. To review: 1) a Jew may only become a slave if he is poor; 2) he may only remain a slave for six years; 3) if the slave declares he’d like to stay longer, he may. What is absent from every ‘requirement’ is the master’s personal will or desire! No significant part of a Jewish slave’s time under his master’s authority has anything to do with what the master wants: he can’t make someone a slave; he has no power over him after six years; and the slave remains a slave only if the slave so chooses. A similar, additional requirement is given in our parsha, further on in the perek (25:39-40), where it states that ‘when your brother is in dire financial straits and he is sold to you, you shall not work him as a slave; rather treat him like a renter or worker’ - adding to the theme, that not only can’t the master make someone a slave (he is only sold to the a person because of his pecuniary situation) even when he does have a slave, he’s prohibited from treating his slave like one. And this is why a slave is allowed to stay on past the originally commanded six years: because, if it’s better for the slave to stay longer, then the Torah permits it. The original six-year limited servitude was established to protect the slave; therefore, if it's personally beneficial for the slave to remain a slave (e.g. he is supported, has a family, treated respectfully as a worker) then, consistent with the underlying established theme, the slave is obviously permitted to remain in his current role.

 

And if we look at the haftarah read for Parshat Mishpatim, this idea, its significance and its Divine lesson - is perfectly illustrated. In the Haftarah from Yirmiyahu, we are told that God is infuriated by the people’s return to enslaving their Jewish brethren after they had previously accepted God’s command to free all their slaves. Not only were they now defying God’s will, but because they had already demonstrated their understanding of what God wanted (by previously freeing their slaves) they were now, in essence, blatantly ignoring what they knew was Divinely desired! And the punishment for such iniquitous behavior? God says, “You did not listen to Me to declare freedom for your fellow man; therefore, I declare freedom from you, to the sword, the plague and the famine.”

 

Why are the consequences of this crime so harsh? What did Bnei Yisrael do that justified a removal of God’s protection in their lives, opening the door for sickness and death? God explains: “I made a covenant with your forefathers the day I took them out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, saying, ‘after seven years you must send your slave free…’” The defying of this specific mitzvah signifies the severing of the covenant God made with the past generation when they accepted God’s eternal authority over them when He freed them from Egypt’s bondage. In Yirmiyahu, when they stubbornly retained their mastery over their fellow Jews, they were in fact establishing themselves as masters therein denying the Divine rule. Therefore, God, in turn, says that because they didn’t want Him, then He won’t be their master, and will not provide them a master’s protection; they can fend for themselves against the plagues and enemies of their world!

 

What this Haftarah illustrates, therefore, is the true problem of Jewish slavery: it’s not that Jews can’t be slaves, but rather Jews can’t be masters[5] - there is only one True, Eternal Master. This Divine message is reflected through the theme we mentioned above: for, even as a master, the instituted limitations ensure the removal of any true feeling of mastery that person may experience while having another Jew’s under his authority. Although a Jew may technically serve as a master over another Jew, he nonetheless has no ability to initiate or continue the servitude of another Jew, nor does he have control over the termination of that servitude; and he is forbidden, as a master, to treat another Jew like his slave even during the time another Jew is under his 'control’.

 

And this is why the command to count 50 years is specifically directed to the individual, to “לך”, as opposed to the expected and precedented “לכם”. Each and every stage of an individual’s time as master is governed by restrictions and limitations which essentially removed his feeling of mastery over another Jew: the slave became a slave because of the slave’s financial trouble; he continued being a slave only because of the slave’s choice to remain; and the master is forced to free his long-time slave because God said it was enough. There is one stage, however, where this master may not feel this required ‘removal’, where understandably he could experience the perception of mastery over a fellow Jew - a perception specifically prohibited by God. It could be felt during the years between the choices made by others: the elongated period of time between the slave deciding to stay and God declaring the time was up. How does God instill the necessary non-mastery perception during that period, the majority of time when the master is a master? He demands, specifically from every individual master (“לך”) to count each year of that period explicitly within the context of leading to the God-determined end of his slave’s servitude. Each year the master is required to actively and consciously create the connection between the year he finds himself in now as a master and the Divinely enforced conclusion to this role.

 

And this is why the Torah begins the Yovel laws in the singular, but then concludes the rest of the laws employing the plural language. For while the actualization of the freeing of the slaves (and returning of lands), at the conclusion of the 50 years, is truly a national responsibility, the awareness the counting leading up to that conclusion is there to instill is specifically for the individuals - the masters - to attain.

 

 

 

[1] ChaZaL have already understood this “לך” as referring to Beit Din. The question in this article is not questioning the Halakha, but rather understanding more deeply what the Torah intended by using this particular pronoun.

[2]    The question is truly on the exceptional individual language used by Yovel, for the national language used by the Omer is logical and expected: national mitzvot get ‘national’ directives. So if Yovel is a national mitzvah, it too should get a ‘national’ directive.

[3]    According to Torah She’Be’al Peh, the reasons for a Jew to become a slave are only if he is poor and cannot support himself or his family, or if he stole and is unable to pay back the sum he stole.

[4]    The slave is referring to the wife, and kids from that union, who the master had given to the slave during his servitude and, according to the law, would therefore remain under the master’s rule and only the slave-husband/father is freed.

[5]    Which is consistent with the laws that allow a Jew to become a slave to begin with (when financially necessary) and why he is allowed to extend his time as a slave (if it would continue to be beneficial for him)  - if necessary, Jews can be slaves, it’s the Jewish mastery that is strictly restricted.

 

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