Behar: Exclusive Ownership

May 8, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Posted in Behar | Leave a comment

And if your brother beside you becomes impoverished and is sold to you, you may not impose slave labor on him.  He will become like a hired worker, like a temporary alien worker with you…  Because they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they may not be sold as a slave is sold.  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 25:39-42)

aved = slave, servant, assistant, subject (of a king)

Since Biblical Hebrew does not have separate words for “slave” and “servant”, translating the word eved or aved depends on context.  I translating the word as “servant” when it refers to a human who is owned by God, or to a human who serves another human but is not his property.  I translate the word as “slave” when it refers to someone who is owned as property by another human being.  Throughout the ancient Middle East, some slaves were captured in battle, and others were reduced by extreme poverty to selling themselves (and/or their children).

This week’s Torah portion, Behar (On a mountain), mandates some unusual ways to reverse poverty in an agricultural society.  If a family has to sell its land, it can be redeemed by a kinsman at any time; and even if it is not redeemed, the land returns to the original family every 50 years, in the Yovel/ Jubilee year.

If an Israelite becomes even poorer, and has to sell himself into slavery, then he, too, can be redeemed by a kinsman at any time; and even if he is not redeemed, he is set free in  the Yovel year.  Furthermore, the Israelite who “buys” a fellow Israelite must treat him like a hired worker, not like a slave … because all Israelites belong to God, so they cannot be owned by people.

The end of the Torah portion Behar warns that Israelites are also forbidden to become servants to any other god:

You shall not make for yourselves worthless gods or idols; you shall not erect a standing-stone for yourselves; and you shall not place in your land a stone with a figure on it for prostration upon; because I, Yah, am your god.  My sabbaths you shall observe, and my holy place you shall hold in awe; I am Yah.  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 26:1-2)

shabbat = sabbath, day of rest (from a root word meaning to cease, to stop)

mikdash = holy place, sanctuary, temple

Israelites  belong exclusively to their own god.  They may temporarily serve a human being.  But they must never serve another god.

I was raised an atheist and then chose to become a Jew, so I’ve never bowed before a sculpture of Jesus on the cross, or any other god-image. I have never even prayed to another deity. Does that mean I’m all set? Not quite. According to the portion Behar, I must also be a servant of  the God of the four-letter name, which I translate above as Yah.  It’s not enough to say that I don’t belong to anyone else.  Nor is it enough to say that I belong to God because, like all humans, I have only limited control over my own life.  The question is whether I’m actually dedicating my life to “serving” God.

Maybe studying and writing about the Torah every week doesn’t count.  Maybe my prayers aren’t passionate enough.  Or maybe by the time I find a definition of God that I can accept, I’ve lost the God that the Torah is talking about.

How can anyone serve God as a slave serves a master?  The answer may be in the next sentence:  My sabbaths you shall observe, and my holy place you shall hold in awe.

Aha!  Maybe we serve God by stopping every seventh day to rest, reflect, and reset our intentions.  And maybe we serve God by noticing the holiness of the place where we are, instead of taking it for granted.

When I think of it that way, I’m glad I belong to God.

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