1) A Jewish Slave

Two thoughts for Parshas Behar, and they’re both related.  We have in perek 25, pasuk 39 the idea of a Jewish slave. This is a very hard concept to understand, certainly since the Civil War and many have tried to reconcile the Torah’s view of slavery. But, certainly, what’s even more difficult is the understanding of a Jewish slave, and, of course, there isn’t such a thing nowadays and there shouldn’t be based on our understanding of “Diracheha darchei noam.”  But, the laws of the Torah still remain and the lessons are certainly there.

A person should only become a slave if absolutely necessary

So, the pasuk say, “V’chi yamuch achicha imach v’nimkar lach”. When your brother becomes destitute and he has to sell himself, and the gemara darshens that a person is not allowed to sell himself as a slave for no reason.  It’s only because usually he stole money and doesn’t have enough money to pay back and he’s just broke, so he sells himself into a temporary servitude, and we know from Parsha Mishpatim there’s laws about an eved ivri that he really is supposed to try to free himself as fast as possible and it’s a very negative thing if he stays in that slavery mentality which is what the piercing of the ear is all about if he decides he doesn’t want to leave.

A Jewish slave must be treated properly “achicha”

But, suffice it to say, the Gra brings down, and it’s based on Chazal, that it’s a very interesting thing. The pasuk says, “V’chi yamuch achicha imach.”  Your brother.  He’s still called your brother, but yet, the pasuk says, “v’nimkar lach”.  He sells himself to you.  “Lo saavod b’avodas eved.”  Don’t treat him with servitude.  So, we know that we have to treat him properly, and even Chazal say even for an eved Canani, a non-Jewish slave, one who buys an eved is really like he has purchased a master for himself because we need to treat our slaves with respect which is certainly very different then the eighteen hundreds and the civil war era of slaves that were not treated properly for the most part.  And, certainly in today’s world, whatever slavery still exists in certain places of the world there is not a treatment of the human as a person which is a big problem. 

Suffice it to say, when we look at this pasuk, the Gra brings down this drasha based on Chazal which is very fascinating, but it’s an interesting one, and that is that the Torah still calls him “achicha”, he’s still your brother, and your responsibility is even if you bought him legally and he’s your slave, but you still have a responsibility to treat him like a mentch.  You still have to treat him like he’s your brother, and that’s your responsibility.

The eved ivri, must act as an eved

However, the slave is not supposed to take advantage of this in the sense that of course he appreciates being treated like a human being,but he’s not supposed to manipulate you and not act according to what his expectations are, and so, therefore, that’s why the pasuk says: You can’t treat him like avodas eved.  However, he has to treat himself as if he is an eved, and whatever the responsibilities of an eved are.  Maybe they are determined by the time and by the society.  And, so, therefore, it’s a fascinating thing that there’s a responsibility that you have, how you should act towards the person, and there’s the responsibility that the slave has, how he acts towards you.

Proper Chavrusah

I’ve heard this with different people where Reuven asked his rebbe or the Rosh Yeshiva who he should learn with as a chavrusa, and he was told that he should learn with Shimon because Shimon is a tremendous talmid chacham; it’s going to be a challenging and growth oriented learning. But then Reuven came back a few hours later and said:  But, rebbe, I don’t understand.  I asked Shimon if he could learn with me, and he said: No because you told him that I’m not a good chavrusa for him. 

The rebbe explained that it’s not a contradiction.  I think for you it is a good match and if you could get him and convince him to learn with you and push yourself it would be very successful, but when he asked me for my advice, based on me knowing him and his needs, I don’t know that it is a good match.  Well then, he asked: Why did you recommend it?  So, he said: Every person has to do what their responsibility is.  There is still a possibility that he could learn with you, but you would have to push yourself, and as I explained to him, it might not be the most optimal situation because of the challenges of dynamics, however, it could work also.  

I personally heard this story from someone that this actually happened to.  He said that at the end they did end up learning together, and it was very bumpy at first, but they did end up working it out. But, the advice that the Rosh Yeshiva gave was actually very accurate because when you give advice each person has what’s good for them and what’s not good for them.  And, it’s the same thing with an eved: that each person has their responsibility: as the master you have a responsibility to treat him respectfully, but as a slave he has the responsibility to fulfill his obligations properly.  So, that is one p’shat from the Gra.

2) A Slave that Acts Improperly

There’s another pasuk, a little further on, which, again, is talking about this idea of slavery.  Perek 25, pasuk 46, and the pasuk says, and it’s a very interesting pasuk because you’ll see that it’s kind of read two ways “V’hisnachalten osam livneichem achareichem lareshes achuza”.  So, the pasuk says, “l’olam vahem ta’avodu”.  You could keep the slave and have him work for you, for as long as you want. And, then, seemingly, there’s a comma there, and then, “u’v’acheichem Bnei Yisrael”, however, when it comes to your brother, the Jewish people, “ish b’achiv”, when it comes to you related to your brother once again, “lo sirdofo b’farech”.  Don’t treat him with harsh labor.

Chazal actually darshen in Bava Metzia that it’s actually not fully true because if this Jewish slave acts without proper middos, then you are allowed to give him backbreaking labor which is pushing him beyond what would be the norm, even if he’s a Jewish slave, and, especially, if he’s not acting appropriately, the seeming rational that I understand is because if someone is wasting his time and not acting appropriately, then he should be given servitude so that he can use his time productively,

Kabalas ol Torah

Chazal say that someone that is mekabeil ol Torah, the famous Chazal in Meseches Derech Eretz Rabba and mentioned in Avos and other sources in brief.  In Avos d’Rabbi Nosson the full length is if someone is mekabeil ol Torah they remove from him the ol of malchus and fear and all types of negative things are removed from him.  Why?  Because the p’shat is that if he’s mekabeil the Torah he’s fulfilling his purpose and he’s using his time wisely, but if he’s not then Hashem says: If you’re wasting your time, then I’m going to occupy you with other things to keep you out of trouble.  That’s our job to keep out of trouble, like the Chovos Halevavos says the two reasons for hishtadlus: One of them is so that we don’t kick Hashem.  The other one is to keep us busy that we should be productive.  Therefore, if a person has full emunah in Hashem and keeps himself productive with Torah, then his hishtaduls chiyuvim are very different. Ayein Sham.

Trop Breaks the Verse

Zugt the Gra: If a person acts inappropriate, then you can punish him with harsh work, but if he acts like an appropriate Jew, then you should give him regular slave labor and, of course, he should be able to live his life without stressers.  Gra explains, based on the trop, and we explain this very often, that on this pasuk, the word, “u’v’acheichem” regarding your brother, there are two trops on it.  There’s a mapach, which is underneath, and there’s a geresh which is above.  So, what does that mean?

Gra says that you read the pasuk in two ways. You read, “L’olam bahem ta’avodu u’v’acheichem”. It means you could treat them harshly, u’v’acheichem, and also to your brother. When he acts lowly, downward, when he acts like a negative person, which is the geresh. He’s divorced from Judaism, from acting appropriate, then, “l’olam bahem ta’avodu”.  In that case, you’re allowed to work him harshly. However, when he acts appropriately, the mapach, he turns himself around and he acts appropriately, which is the trop which is on top, so he acts appropriate and high like a proper Jew is supposed to act, then you read it, “u’v’acheichem Bnei Yisrael lo sa’avodu b’farech”.  Then, you read it together: Your brother, the Jew, you should not treat him with harsh labor.  That is the Vilna Gaon.  Beautiful, beautiful p’shat.


Rabbi Yosef Tropper is a rabbi and psychotherapist. Subscribe at ParshaThemes.com