SALT - Monday, 15 Iyar 5778 - April 30, 2018

  • Rav David Silverberg
This week's SALT shiurim are dedicated in memory of
David Moshe ben Harav Yehuda Leib Silverberg z"l,
whose yahrzeit is Thursday 18 Iyar, May 3
The Torah in Parashat Behar presents several laws relevant to the master-servant relationship, emphasizing that such an arrangement may never be made permanent.  All servants must be released with the onset of the yovel (jubilee year), and in the case of a Jew forced to sell himself into the service of a gentile, his relatives are to try to purchase him from his master, and if this does not happen, then he is released on the jubilee.  The Torah emphasizes that this law is based upon the basic tenet that “they are My servants, whom I took from the land of Egypt” (25:42).  Several verses later (25:55), the Torah reiterates, “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants; they are My servants whom I took from the land of Egypt.” 
Rashi, citing Torat Kohanim, succinctly explains, “Shetari kodem” – “My contract preceded.”  Meaning, a person’s status as God’s servant precedes the status of servitude he receives by virtue of his being forced to sell himself as a servant for his livelihood.  As such, his servitude to a human master is inherently limited by the terms and conditions of his status as the Almighty’s servant.  Therefore, God demands that servitude to a human master may not be permanent, in order not to undermine the servant’s status as service to the Almighty.  Seforno (25:42) adds that this explanation of these laws is provided as the reason why a person does not have the authority to make himself permanently subservient to a human master.  Even if the servant prefers this life of subservience, he is not allowed to choose lifelong servitude because of his prior commitment to the Master of the world.
Symbolically, the message of “shetari kodem” is very relevant and vitally important to each and every one of us, even though formal servitude no longer exists.  We all knowingly submit to the “authority” of various “masters.”  As in the case of the servant in Parashat Behar, our material needs force us to commit to a profession, effectively placing ourselves into the “servitude” of one, or more, “masters” to whom we are accountable and whose wishes we are duty-bound to fulfill.  We also voluntarily submit to other “masters,” such as in the pursuit of wealth beyond our basic necessities, in the pursuit of hobbies and interests, or simply out of a desire for amusement.  These forms of “subservience” are, in and of themselves, perfectly legitimate, but only on the condition that we live with an awareness of “shetari kodem,” that our first obligation is to the Master of the world.  Whenever any conflict arises between our self-imposed commitments and our commitments to the Almighty, the former must give way to the latter.  Just as the Torah bars every member of Benei Yisrael from subjecting himself to servitude that undermines his servitude to God, likewise, we are never free to prioritize any commitment over our most important and earliest commitment – to faithfully serve our Creator.