The Punishment Fits the Crime

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

The first mitzvah in this week’s parsha discusses the obligations surrounding the treatment and release of the "Eved Ivri", Hebrew slave. There is a common but mistaken notion that the Eved Ivri is a slave, which cannot be further from the truth. A cursory study of the halachos concerning the Eved Ivri reveals a set of labor laws that might be considered more benevolent than some of the working conditions in today’s world. He is not a slave, not by any means. Moreover, Bnai Yisrael’s failure to abide by the commandment to release the Eved Ivri upon completion of his servitude resulted in horrific consequences, as detailed in this week’s haftarah.  The importance of elucidating the relationship between master and eved, as well as the flaw exhibited by Bnai Yisrael, is the subject if this week’s article. 

In the time of King Tzidkiyahu, a covenant was re-established which freed servants at the completion of their sixth year of labor. Yirmiyahu (34) explains that the nation abided by this covenant, releasing all their male and female servants. However, the state of freedom was short-lived for these servants, as they were “re-claimed” by their previous owners, ostensibly against their will. God reveals to Yeremiayhu that due to this disregard for the commandment concerning the release of all servants after the completion of their sixth year of servitude, He was going to “free” Bnai Yisrael (ibid 17) “unto the sword, unto the pestilence, and unto the famine; and I will make you a horror unto all the kingdoms of the earth.” The verses that follow offer more grim prophecy for Bnai Yisrael, all the result of their failure to abide by this commandment.

God’s harsh reaction to Bnai Yisrael’s failure here is one that seems disproportionate to the nature of the error. What is so heinous about not fulfilling this commandment that merits such a degree of destruction? 

The Ramban offers a seemingly obscure explanation of the nature of this mitzvah. He writes (Shemos 21:2) that the release of the Eved Ivri in the seventh year is a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt. He then offers another reason – releasing the eved is a zecher of maase bereshis, like Shabbos. The seventh year for the eved is a “Shabbason,” a “resting period” from working for his master. These reasons seem quite ambiguous. At first, the Ramban creates a parallel between the freedom of the Eved Ivri and the exodus from Egypt. In order for this analogy to hold true, one must assume he is implying the situations of Bnai Yisrael and the eved prior to their subsequent freedoms share some similarity. The Ramban therefore would seem to be comparing the state of the Eved Ivri and the enslavement of the Jewish people at the hand of the Egyptians. Could this be so? The Eved Ivri is treated with the utmost care: he cannot be subjected to frivolous work or burdensome labor (Rambam Hilchos Avadim 1:6-7). This would seem to be incomparable to the slavery experienced by Bnai Yisrael in Egypt. How do we understand this comparison? The second reason offered by the Ramban is unclear as well. The freedom of the eved is for the rest of his life, while Shabbos is experienced on a weekly basis. Furthermore, what stops the Eved Ivri (in most instances) from celebrating Shabbos? He is not excluded from the system of Shabbos – so what makes his experience of Shabbos while in the state of avdus different from when he is free? 

Let’s take the first rationale offered by the Ramban, namely the analogy between the exodus from Egypt (and the state of enslavement) with the freeing of the Eved Ivri in the seventh year. Obviously, the nature of the physical servitude is completely different. However, there is one underlying psychological  theme that emerges in both situations – the dependency of one man on another for his sustenance. The concept of “slave mentality” has been applied to the situation of the Jews in Egypt, where they viewed the Egyptians as more than their masters – they were also their benefactors. A pivotal part of the Divine Plan was the eradication of this state of mind, accomplished through the exodus (and culminating with kriyas yam suf). This same emotional state exists in the world of the Eved Ivri, with his adon acting as his sole provider. As such, it can lead to a sense of supremacy envisioned by the adon. One should not think this sense of power is intrinsic to the relationship between Eved Ivri and adon. It does not start from the moment he begins his servitude – it is one that takes time to develop. Therefore, it is crucial that the relationship is broken after the sixth year, to ensure that it is severed before the dependency takes too strong of a hold.

What about the second analogy? The ability of the eved to relate to Shabbos lies in the philosophical objective of avoidance of melacha on this day. The prohibition of melacha on Shabbos is not merely set up to prevent physical labor. The nature of this prohibition is to prevent Bnai Yisrael from engaging in creative actions in the physical world. Studying each melacha, one can clearly see how the violation occurs once the action is deemed “creative.” Therefore, Shabbos serves as the day to redirect this creative energy from the physical world to the study of God. The average person’s daily activities and labor, including their creative energies, are focused on serving themselves. Once the ability to focus one’s creative powers on the empirical world becomes prohibited, one can turn to focusing on God. The Eved Ivri, as we know, is excluded from many of the commandments, a testament (as my friend put it) to his overall lack of autonomy.  The creative abilities of the Eved Ivri are there to serve the will of his adon -  they are not his to direct. Since this is part of who he is, even the removal of the world of melacha is not enough to free his mind completely to focus on God. The adon, then, is in a position of power. He has, in a sense, control over a part of the mind of the Eved Ivri. Much like the idea of physical dependency that may become too extreme, to allow for this sense of power to exist over too long a period of time can result in a severe distortion. Therefore, the adon is obligated to release the Eved Ivri at the end of the sixth year, ensuring that the eved retains his ability to direct his energies appropriately.

How does this tie in to the harsh punishments God promises to inflict on Bnai Yisrael? It is interesting that Bnai Yisrael had no reservations when they initially freed their servants. It was only after they had released the avadim that Bnai Yisrael sought to reclaim them. This is very similar to the regret Pharaoh exhibited soon after Bnai Yisrael had left Egypt. Once they were gone, the cold splash of reality hit him directly in the face – his power had been stripped away. It is this same misguided sense of power that was exhibited by Bnai Yisrael in the time of Tzidkiyahu. Their relationship to their avadim had taken on a turn towards uninhibited power. It is clear how such a sense of power could emerge based on the above explanation of the Ramban. And it is the sense of power that was so destructive to Bnai Yisrael. Within the feeling of control over their avadim lie the seeds to idolatry. Once mankind views himself as in complete control in this framework, it naturally extends to areas not defined by the terms adon and eved. The more he feels he is in control, the more his thirst for power cannot be quenched, and the more God inevitably becomes marginalized. The proper adherence to this commandment is more than mere benevolence – it demonstrates man’s clear admission of his inherent limitations of control and power.