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Eved Hashem - Servant of G-d

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

One of the predominant words that appear in this week's Parsha, Parshat Behar, is the word "ge'ulah". It appears at least 19 times in the parsha in different forms. The context of this word in this parsha is understood in the context of the laws of Shmittah, Yovel, the redeeming and returning of houses and land sold to the original owner and the release of slaves. The usual translation we use for this word is "redemption", which the Ramban explains[1] simply means to release and free something from its restraint. All in all this parsha is all about freedom.

It is also very appropriate that this is the central theme of the concluding mitzvoth of Sefer Vayikra, which is in effect the end of the giving of the Torah at Sinai where Hashem appeared and identified Himself to Bnei Yisrael with the words: " I am the L-rd, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."  The first thing G-d said to the Jewish people was: I am your liberator, I have set you free!

Ironically though, the verse that concludes the issue of "geulah" and freedom is:

"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 L-rd, your G-d."[2]

Though this verse appears after the extreme case of a Jew having to have sold himself to a non-Jew, an almost identical verse appears as well after the case of a Jew having sold himself into slavery to another Jew.

The Torah says that the reason it decrees the obligation of redemption and release in all the above mentioned cases is because we, the Jewish people, are actually the servants of G-d and therefore cannot be enslaved to others or even to each other. Rashi, quoting Chazal, appropriately comments on the words: "they are my servants"   - "My contract came first". It seems therefore that it's not about freedom after all, rather we are already enslaved to G-d and therefore the selling of a slave from one owner to someone else is void as they already belong to the first original owner. It's not about freedom it's about primordial slavery to G-d.

Indeed a very common phrase in Judasim is "eved Hashem". The title bestowed on the greatest of men, Moshe Rabeinu, was "eved Hashem", a servant of G-d. Though we are all very familiar with these terms, it's not difficult to sometimes wonder why we have to be servants at all. Slavery is not part of our modern world. The more enlightened, educated, democratic and moral our societies are, the more they shun slavery. Granted we are talking about slavery to G-d, but still it is slavery.

What is the meaning of this primordial slavery to G-d?   

Furthermore, we often explain and translate the words "eved Hashem" and "avodat Hashem" as "the worship of G-d". What does it mean to worship G-d and why is it necessary?

The Ohav Yisrael, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, known as the Apter Rov[3], has two profound insights into the matter of being an Eved Hashem. Firstly, the meaning of being an eved, a slave, is to do the work of one's master. Not to worship the master, rather to perform the duties and tasks of the master in order to relieve the master of his duties. [4] The way through which Hashem manifests himself in this world is through the actions of his servants who do His work for Him.[5] The performance of Mitzvot and emulating the traits of G-d is the way through which we can succeed in doing the work of G-d in this world.

Secondly, since each and every person is commanded to do their work and perform their Mitzvot, and one cannot do the work of someone else and thereby exempt them from their own responsibilities, it follows that it is a tragedy, and therefore prohibited for any individual to be enslaved to another individual for they thereby cease to fulfill their own responsibilities and tasks expected from them from G-d and instead are performing the tasks of someone else! Each and every person has their own specific obligations; one cannot be enslaved to the duties of someone else and avoid their own.[6] 

The magnificence in being an Eved Hashem is in the realization and appreciation of the grandeur of doing the work of G-d in this world and not in the belittling of the human spirit to the depths of common slavery.

In addition, Rav Kook, in his commentary[7] to Eiyn Ya'akov, explains another important facet of being an Eved Hashem . One of the cornerstones of Jewish philosophy is the infinity of G-d. It is well known how the Rambam insisted on the inability of the human being to positively describe G-d in any way due to the boundlessness of his being on the one hand, and the limitedness of the human on the other. The physical world is characterized by its finiteness and boundaries and is therefore limited.

Servitude to anyone but G-d is by definition a stifling and restriction of the human spirit that by its nature forever yearns for the infinite. Servitude of G-d however, is the possibility to live a life of ongoing never-ending ascent. Only servitude to G-d is what frees man from his bounds.

Rashi in his commentary to the verse quoted at the beginning of this shiur, "they are My servants", states: "Whoever subjugates them below is as if he subjugates above." The commentators pondered the meaning of this expression and were not unanimous in their understanding of the phrase 'is as if he subjugates above'. Shadal, Rav Shmuel David Luzzato, brings a slightly different variation of this Chazal in his commentary which reads: "Whoever subjugates them below is as if he subjugates Him above”, a thought that was echoed by Emanuel Levinas who said: "To enslave the human being is to enslave The Holy One blessed be He, for they are connected to each other."

 

 

[1] Ramban, Commentary to Vayira 25:24.

[2] Vayikra 25:55.

[3] Born Poland 1748, died Mezhbozh, Russian Empire 1825.

[4] "כי שם עבד אינו שייך רק במי שעובד ועושה ופועל עובדות ועשיות ופעולות אשר היה מוטל על רבו לעשותם והוא טורח ועושה הכל עבור רבו ואז נמצא שהוא פוטר את רבו מהטירחא שהיה מוטל עליו." (אוהב ישראל פרשת בהר ד"ה כי לי בני ישראל עבדים)

[5] " וכן הקדוש ברוך הוא זן את כל העולמות וכל הברואים והכל על ידי פעולות ועובדות הצדיקים הקדושים ומעשיהם הטובים." (שם)

[6] "והעובדות ומעשיהם הטובים ומצות התורה המה מוטלים ומצווים על כל איש פרטי איש הישראלי ואין אחד מהם נפטר בעשיית חבירו ולזה אי אפשר לתאר לשום איש ישראל בשם עבד ... כי אינו פוטר את רבו במעשיו ובפעולותיו ועל שניהם כאחד חל השיעבוד לשעבד כל איבריו וחושיו לעבודת בוראו יתברך." (שם)

[7] Eiyn Ayah, Shabbat 1; Pg 80.

 

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