The Torah in Parashat Re’ei (15:12) reiterates the requirement to release an indentured servant after six years of work, a command which appears already earlier, in Sefer Shemot (21:2). Here in Parashat Re’ei, the Torah adds the command of ha’anaka, which requires the master to give the servant generous gifts to help him begin his new life as a free man (15:13-14).
Tanna De-bei Eliyahu (22) notes the broader significance of this command, in light of the fact that the institution of eved ivri – indentured servitude – exists primarily for the benefit of thieves who stole, were caught, and are then unable to pay back the victim. The thief would sell himself as a slave in order to obtain the funds with which to repay what he had stolen. Tanna De-bei Eliyahu thus comments that if the Torah provides gifts to “the wicked who are sold on account of their theft…all the more so the supremely righteous, who fulfill the Almighty’s will each day.” If a thief receives generous gifts in reward for his six years of service to his master, then we cannot even imagine the rewards awaiting righteous individuals who faithfully serve the Creator each day throughout their lives.
The Tolna Rebbe added further insight into the fact that this mitzva requires bestowing gifts upon somebody who had been convicted for theft. He explained that the master is obligated to provide the servant with these gifts to compensate for the humiliation and shame the servant has suffered. Although he was found guilty of theft, the servant nevertheless deserves mercy and compassion on account of the disgrace he has endured, and for this he is granted special gifts. This mitzva, the Tolna Rebbe noted, thus teaches us the importance of showing sensitivity to the feelings of even the lowliest individuals, that even those who have committed serious offenses, for which they need to be severely punished, deserve a degree of compassion for the humiliation they experience.
The Tolna Rebbe went even further, advancing a bold, fascinating theory about the relationship between the eved ivri and his master. Numerous writers raised the question of why somebody would purchase a convicted criminal to be his servant. Wouldn’t people naturally be wary of bringing a thief into their homes, and trusting them to perform work for them? The Tolna Rebbe proposed a surprising answer to this question – that the one who is most likely to enlist the thief as his servant is the victim. If somebody lost a large amount of money due to theft, and the thief does not have the means of repaying, then, considering that people are not likely to want to purchase the thief as their servant, the victim’s best chance of retrieving what he lost lay in having the thief work for him. That way, at very least, he receives six years of service in lieu of payment. If so, the Tolna Rebbe observed, then the ha’anaka obligation becomes even more striking. After the servant works for his victim in lieu of repayment for the stolen goods, the master must shower the servant – the thief who stole from him – with lavish gifts. This is how far the Torah goes in emphasizing the importance of compassion and sensitivity even towards those who are guilty of serious offenses – one must show compassion and sensitivity even to the thief who stole from him, granting him gifts in consideration of the shame and humiliation he has suffered.
The Tolna Rebbe applied this lesson specifically to the area of education and child-rearing. Even a child who has acted wrongly and must be punished is entitled to compassion for the humiliation endured. The experience of punishment, even when it is deserved, causes great pain and embarrassment, and parents and educators must show consideration to these difficult feelings. Punishment must be accompanied by compassion, as all people – even when they act improperly – deserve sensitivity, and it is specifically through sensitivity that they can be motivated and led back to the path of proper conduct.