On the Weekly Torah Portion of Behar

ערבסקהThis week’s Torah portion, behar (Leviticus 25:1-55, 26:1), discusses many items of social justice, including the issue of slavery. Slaves were an integral part of the economy in those days. While the Torah does not abolish slavery, it seeks to secure the right of slaves by law (Israelite slaves, that is; slaves of non-Israelite descent receive a much harsher treatment, unfortunately):

וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ וְנִמְכַּר לָךְ לֹא תַעֲבֹד בּוֹ עֲבֹדַת עָבֶד: כְּתוֹשָׁב יִהְיֶה עִמָּךְ עַד שְׁנַת הַיֹּבֵל יַעֲבֹד עִמָּךְ: וְיָצָא מֵעִמָּךְ הוּא וּבָנָיו עִמּוֹ וְשָׁב אֶל מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ וְאֶל אֲחֻזַּת אֲבֹתָיו יָשׁוּב: כִּי עֲבָדַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם לֹא יִמָּכְרוּ מִמְכֶּרֶת עָבֶד:… כִּי לִי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדִים עֲבָדַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
If your kinsman under you continues in straits and must give himself over to you, to not subject him to the treatment of a slave. He shall remain with you as a hired or bound laborer; he shall serve with you only until the Jubilee year. Then he and his children with him shall be free of your authority; he shall go back to his family and return to his ancestral holding. For they are my slaves, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, and may not give themselves over into slavery…. For it is to me that the Israelites are slaves: they are my slaves, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I Y-H-V-H your God. (Leviticus 25:39-42, 55)

As discussed earlier, in the context of the Torah portion of Vayera, the Hebrew word for slave is eved. Being an eved is considered to be a despicable way of life; referring to someone in this manner is a great insult. Why? Because as a slave, one has nothing of one’s own. One’s body, one’s cloths, one’s spouse and one’s children belong to one’s master-owner.

But when it comes to God, this relationship is hailed as the ideal relationship. Abraham is hailed by good as “my slave, Abraham”; Moses is referred to as God’s slave; and the prophets’ highest ideal of life was to be a slave of Y-H-V-H:

הֵן עַבְדִּי אֶתְמָךְ בּוֹ בְּחִירִי רָצְתָה נַפְשִׁי נָתַתִּי רוּחִי עָלָיו מִשְׁפָּט לַגּוֹיִם יוֹצִיא.
This is My slave, whom I uphold,
My chosen one, in whom I delight.
I have put My spirit upon him,
He shall teach the true way to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1)

English translations of the Bible, by both Jewish and Christian sources, translate the words eved adonay, which literally mean God’s slave, as God’s servant, because it’s a “less humiliating” way of describing someone who is so surrendered to God. But in doing so, they are performing both a linguistic and a philosophical error. Linguistically, because eved actually means slave; a servant would be mesharet. Philosophically, because the use of this word is deliberate—it describes a situation in which one recognizes that nothing that one has is one’s own, it all belongs to God.

Far from being an insult, calling someone “God’s slave” is the highest compliment. It is, in fact, the name of one of the prophets, Ovadiah (עֹבַדְיָה). And it’s the same in Arabic: calling someone ‘abd (عبد), Arabic for slave (which comes from the same root as the Hebrew eved), is an insult; but when used in conjunction with Allah, it is the greatest honor. Hence the name ‘Abdallah (عبد الله), which means “Allah’s slave.” In fact, many traditional Arabic names start with the word ‘abd followed by one of the epithets of Allah from the Qur’an: ‘Abdulrahman (the Slave of the Merciful), ‘Abdulquadir (the Slave of the Powerful), etc.

Interestingly, the Hebrew word eved also shares its root with the Hebrew word avodah, which means both “work” and “worship.” Worshipping God in Judaism is not a question of choice; it is work, a duty. One is to performs it as a slave, in the sense that one who is cognizant that one’s body and mind exist for the sole purpose of performing God’s work. It is the same concept in Islam, in which these three words—work, worship and slavery—all come from the same Arabic root, which is identical with the Hebrew one.

And yet it is important to realize that this slavery is understood, and experienced, in both religions as the key to real freedom. In the words of the great 11th Century Rabbi and poet Yehudah Halevi:

עַבְדֵי זְמָן עַבְדֵי עֲבָדִים הֵם –
עֶבֶד אֲדֹנָי הוּא לְבַד חָפְשִׁי:
עַל כֵּן בְבַקֵּשׁ כָּל-אֱנוֹשׁ חֶלְקוֹ
“חֶלְקִי אֲדֹנָי!” אָמְרָה נַפְשִׁי.
Slaves of time are slaves of slaves—
Only God’s slave is free:
Therefore, when each human asked for their share,
My soul said, “God is the share for me!”

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)